USC: Data from experimental polling questions points to another Trump upset next week

“Excellent” is overstating it, but I think Romney’s right that Trump’s prospects are better than everyone expects.


Read this new piece from USC Dornsife and you’ll find some familiar themes on social desirability bias. That’s the same problem that Trafalgar pollster Robert Cahaly has sought to address in his surveys of battleground states, which he claims is why his data is reliably rosier for Trump — much, much rosier in some cases — than the rest of the polling industry’s. Cahaly’s baseline assumption is that there are many more Trump supporters out there than the commentariat realizes but that they’re being overlooked in polling for complicated reasons. Some may be embarrassed about their support for Trump and don’t want to admit it to another person. Some may fear harassment by neighbors or other antagonistic forces (reasonably or not) if their support for Trump became known. Some may simply not pick up the phone when a pollster calls, or give an insincere answer just to mess with the person on the line. Cahaly’s methods aim to remove social desirability bias from the equation, to peer through the haze of some MAGA fans’ reluctance to admit their support and see the true picture of the electorate.

USC’s trying to do the same thing. How do you get an accurate sense of how people are planning to vote if some of them are unwilling to be honest about their intentions? You ask them about other people’s intentions. Not “Will you vote for Trump?” but “Do you think your friends and neighbors are voting for Trump?” According to USC, that type of “social-circle question” — similar to Trafalgar’s approach — shows Trump faring better than most polls indicate. And not just better, but well enough to pull another rabbit out of the hat in the electoral college next Tuesday.


From our previous research on social judgments, we learned that people seem to know their immediate social circles quite well. Their answers about the distribution of income, health status — even the relationship satisfaction of their friends, family and acquaintances — were often in the right ballpark. And when we averaged the data from their responses across a large national sample, it provided a surprisingly accurate picture of the overall population…

[I]n all five of the elections in which we tested this question, the social circle question predicted election outcomes better than traditional questions about voters’ own intentions. These five elections were the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the 2017 French Presidential election, the 2017 Dutch Parliamentary election, the 2018 Swedish Parliamentary election, and the 2018 U.S. election for House of Representatives.

In both the U.S. elections, the social-circle question predicted national and state level results better than the “own intention” question in the same polls. In fact, data from the social-circle question in 2016 accurately predicted which candidate won each state, so it predicted Trump’s electoral college victory

When we calculate how many electoral votes each candidate could get based on state level averages of the own-intention and social-circle questions, it’s looking like an Electoral College loss for Biden. We should note that our poll was not designed for state-level predictions, and in some states we have very few participants. Even so, in 2016 it predicted that Trump would win the electoral vote.


USC is also asking people which candidate they think will win their home state and those results show an even steeper Biden electoral-college loss than the “social circle” results do. What’s especially noteworthy about this is that USC has been conducting its own daily “panel” poll on the presidential race and has had Sleepy Joe ahead the entire time — comfortably. Today they have him up 11 points nationally, indicating a Democratic bloodbath.

What they’re doing here with the “experimental” questions, in other words, is giving readers reason to believe that their own horse-race poll is wildly, embarrassingly wrong.

It’s possible that the traditional polls are right and the “social circle” data is wrong, of course. Both parties this year seem convinced that Trump will do better than his current numbers, righties because they’re sure that Trump fans are a “silent majority” despite the fact that he’s never had a job approval average north of 50 percent and lefties because they have hardcore electoral PTSD from 2016 that makes them fear Trump fans are perennially underestimated. But neither of those things is necessarily true. USC speculates that the pandemic might be throwing off people’s assessments of how their friends intend to vote for the simple reason that we’re all spending less time around each other now. Our information about the day-to-day happenings of our social circle is poorer, therefore our knowledge of their political inclinations is weaker. And our opportunities to influence each other on how to vote are fewer. Your MAGA buddy may have twisted your arm in 2016. Nowadays he’s busy trying not to get COVID and stay afloat financially, just like everyone else.


There’s an obvious question about “social desirability bias” too. If it’s true that it’s distorting the traditional polls and producing artificially encouraging numbers for Biden, whether because people are embarrassed to tell pollsters the truth or because they fear being punished somehow if their community knew their support for Trump, why are we seeing Biden faring better than Clinton in blood-red states? People who live in Montana, say, shouldn’t have reason to feel shy about telling some anonymous polling apparatchik that they’re MAGA and proud, yet Trump’s leading Biden there right now by single digits. He won the state by 20 four years ago.

If anything, the polls in Montana and other very red states should be *overstating* Trump’s support if social desirability bias is real and significant. There must be a few closet Biden voters in places like that who’d rather not let anyone, including pollsters, know that they’ve broken from the president’s pack.

Either way, I think Matthew Walther’s right about what Senate Republicans want out of this election. They want to lose.

Faced with the possibility of losing both the White House and possibly even the Senate in a year in which Democrats are also expected to consolidate control of the House as well, Republicans have resigned themselves to a half decade or so of opposition. Many of them are relieved at the thought of not even having to pretend to govern as members of a minority party — better yet, in the case of those who expect to lose their seats, at the not very remote possibility of a well-remunerated position with a lobbying or consulting firm.

This seems to me the only possible explanation for the GOP’s refusal to pass a second relief bill before the election. Some refreshingly honest liberal observers have called Nancy Pelosi a fool for even entertaining the possibility of such a deal. But she is a wily old fox. She understands that even at the best of times the GOP is reluctant to allow such uninviting prospects as winning elections to interfere with their libertarian economic principles. When things look hopeless and it appears that they have nothing to gain except the gratitude of millions of Americans, they will shrug, like that guy in the Ayn Rand book…

What does all of this mean for the party’s future? If Biden wins, the way forward is clear. The template was established during the Obama administration: moan about “socialism” in the hope that you can get the House back in two years (a remote but not totally unimaginable contingency), and, if all else fails, hope that the Supreme Court will bail you out.


Governing is difficult and thankless, and involves the sort of compromises that are destined to alienate the hardcore members of one’s political base. If all you really care about is holding onto your seat and positioning yourself for a future presidential run then your path is clear. First, hope that you’re relegated to minority status in the Senate and are no longer responsible for anything. Then you pander to your right flank to protect yourself in a primary, do a lot of Fox News hits whining about the Biden administration’s descent into communism, grandstand during hearings about the base’s hobbyhorse du jour (Section 230, for instance), and start staffing up for 2024. That’s the Ted Cruz plan. If he gets lucky on Tuesday night, Democrats will blow the roof off. Not a good outcome policy-wise for the rest of us, but at least we’ll have a party in charge that wants to govern instead of operating like it’s an arm of partisan media.

I’ll leave you with this funny bit from this weekend’s SNL, which captures the flip side of Senate Republicans wanting to lose. What about all the Trump obsessives who need Trump to win so that they have a reason to stay engaged with politics?

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