Is there a shy Trump voter factor the way there used to be “shy Tory factor” in polls? Probably.
The final polls in Michigan in 2016 put Hillary Clinton ahead by 4 to 5 percentage points, and Trump won by three-tenths of one percentage point. The final polls in Pennsylvania in 2016 put Hillary Clinton tied to leading by 4 points, and Trump won by seven-tenths of one percentage point. The final polls in Wisconsin in 2016 put Hillary Clinton ahead by 6 to 8 points, and Trump won by seven-tenths of one percentage point.
The good news for the Trump reelection campaign is that that they can feel reasonably optimistic that Trump will outperform the final polls conducted before Election Day 2020. The bad news is, we don’t know if this “shy Trump voter factor” will be good for one percentage point, 5 percentage points, or 10 percentage points.
Let’s say the shy Trump voters are worth a five-point swing in favor of Trump compared to the most recent numbers in key states. In a matchup against Joe Biden, Trump would still lose Michigan, lose Pennsylvania, and lose Wisconsin, as well as losing the national popular vote by a slightly larger margin than in 2016. If Biden won those three states, and kept Hillary Clinton’s states, he’s at 278 electoral votes and Trump would be a one-term president.
If you’re wondering about the other likely swing states, with a five point swing, Trump would still win Ohio. The limited number of polls in Florida range from a tie to nine point lead for Biden, and North Carolina has an even wider range. Iowa would probably be close.
All of this is when the economy is rocking and rolling; there’s no guarantee that the economy will be doing as well in 15 months. To feel good about Trump’s odds in those states, you must assume his shy supporters are worth a swing of 8 to 10 percentage points from the current numbers.
The “shy Trump voter” effect probably varies from state to state. The point is, in most of the big battleground states, Trump doesn’t need to do slightly better than his current poll numbers. He needs to do way better than his current poll numbers, even when you give him a generous assessment of hidden support that isn’t showing up in opinion surveys but will in show up polling places.
Will Biden, or any other Democratic nominee, be in weaker shape in autumn 2020 compared to now? Probably. Democrats look set to have a long, bruising primary. But that primary fight would have to get awfully nasty to persuade a significant number of self-identified Democrats to stay home and not vote. In a heavily polarized era, the vast majority of Biden supporters will end up supporting Kamala Harris if she’s the nominee, and vice versa.
Trump can and probably will tie the Democratic nominee to the current radical policies being embraced during this primary — de facto open borders, elimination of private health insurance, taxpayer-funded health care and education for those who cross the border illegally. He and his team may feel confident about the potency of the message, “Even if you don’t like everything I’m doing, electing a Democrat means empowering someone who prioritizes other country’s citizens over American citizens.”
Those positions or other flaws may well drag down Democratic candidates in head-to-head matchups against Trump — but they haven’t done so yet.
Coaches sometimes tell athletes, “Even if you’re ahead by ten points, play as if you’re behind by ten points.” Considering his current ominous poll numbers, the Trump campaign should indeed work as if they’re 10 points behind.