Wisconsin’s Uptick in ‘Shy’ Voters Isn’t Great News for Trump or Biden

Then-president Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate in Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Why more voters in the swing state are refusing to tell pollsters their choice for president.

The topline result of the final Marquette University Law School poll of Wisconsin conducted before Tuesday’s elections was that Joe Biden leads Donald Trump 48 percent to 43 percent among likely voters in the state, with 2 percent backing Libertarian Party nominee Jo Jorgensen. But look deeper at the poll and there are several interesting findings.

By a 51–48 margin, likely Wisconsin voters approved of Trump’s handling of the economy. By an overwhelming 57–40 margin, they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. By a 48–38 margin, they supported the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. And perhaps most intriguing of all, the percentage of likely voters refusing to say which candidate they’re backing has ticked up in each of the last three polls, jumping from 2 percent in early September to 6 percent in this latest poll. In 2016, only 1 percent of likely Wisconsin voters refused to reveal their presidential preference in the final Marquette poll.

What’s going on here?

“It turns out that people who have early-voted are a bit more likely to decline to say who they voted for,” says Charles Franklin, the Marquette Law School professor in charge of the poll. “Because so many people now have early-voted, this was not an issue you could really see in polling in earlier years. Now with 40 percent [of likely voters] having already voted, it amounts to this 6 percent who declined or refused to say.”

Are these shy Trump voters? Shy Biden voters? Franklin believes that they’re close to an even mix of both: He found that one-third of them (or 2 percent of likely voters) said they were favorable to Biden but not Trump, one-third said they were favorable to Trump but not Biden, and the final third had a favorable view of both candidates or an unfavorable view of both candidates.

In other words, if you allocate the “refused” column based on favorability ratings, the poll results would be 50 percent for Biden, 45 percent for Trump, 2 percent for Jorgensen, and “2 percent that we’re not able to classify,” says Franklin.

The key difference between Marquette’s final 2016 poll of Wisconsin and its final 2020 poll is that this time, there’s a “smaller undecided and smaller third-party vote,” Franklin says. In Marquette’s final 2016 poll, Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump 46 percent to 40 percent. Trump ended up winning the state 47.2–46.5.

Other pollsters also find that Biden has a higher level of Wisconsin support than Clinton did in 2016, and that there are fewer undecided and third-party voters. In the final 2016 RealClearPolitics average of Wisconsin polls, Clinton led Trump 46.8 percent to 40.3 percent. In 2020, the same metric currently has Biden leading Trump 50.3 percent to 43.9 percent. If the polling average is an accurate gauge of support for Biden, then every undecided, undeclared, and third-party voter could flip to Trump and Biden would still carry Wisconsin.

Of course, as 2016 showed, that’s a big “if.”


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