Posted on December 9, 2015

The Polls May Be Underestimating Trump’s Support

Henry Olsen, The Atlantic, December 9, 2015

Donald Trump’s persistent lead in the GOP presidential-preference polls has been a great source of confusion for the chattering classes. But Trump is actually just the latest manifestation of a more global trend: Data suggests the appeal of anti-immigrant policies to working-class voters is much deeper than most American elites want to believe. And because Trump draws the bulk of his support from less-educated, working- and middle-class voters, he may be positioned to do even better still–for now. Polling data from Europe shows that parties with similar voter profiles to Trump’s consistently do better in both online polls and at the ballot box than in live-interview polling. And currently Trump is far ahead online.


So what explains the chasm between these particular candidates’ online versus live polling data? It turns out that a nontrivial share of these same working-class, anti-immigrant voters won’t tell a live person who they support but will share their true feelings when their support is secret–like on Election Day. This is no surprise: Support for immigration and globalization are perhaps the only political sentiments that unite elites from both business and the academy, from right and left. Openly supporting an anti-immigration candidate can risk social opprobrium, ridicule, or worse. In other words, for every group of vocal Trump supporters, there are probably a lot more who just don’t advertise it.

One example comes from the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, which rose to prominence in the run-up to this May’s general election on a staunchly anti-immigrant and anti-EU platform. Polls there showed that at its height, online and automated polls gave UKIP a third higher level of support (16 percent) than did live-interview phone polls (12 percent). UKIP’s support dropped as Election Day neared, but this online/live-polling gap was evident even in the final polls before Election Day. The final polls from the country’s major online pollsters gave UKIP an average of 14 percent while the phone pollsters gave the party slightly over 11 percent. (The actual results split the difference between the two modes, as UKIP candidates received 12.7 percent of the vote.)


Which is why Trump is on track to do much better than many of his detractors think; he’ll likely be much closer to the Internet and automated polls, where his lead is in the double digits, than the live polls, where his lead is still in the single digits.


American elites must understand that Trump’s appeal is large and not going away. Working-class voters all over the world are legitimately upset about the turn their lives have taken in the last decade and a half. They are largely not racists, nor are they “fruitcakes and loonies,” as British Prime Minister David Cameron once called UKIP backers. And whether Trump’s support strengthens or fades, the real issue remains: Millions of working-class voters are angry, and their anger is not going to quickly disappear even if their current champion does.