While most polls suggest Donald Trump’s reelection bid is in serious trouble, with Joe Biden leading in virtually all battleground states, and even in some Republican strongholds, a few pollsters are bucking the trend, suggesting that the 2020 presidential election is far more competitive than it appears at first blush.
Robert Cahaly, the founder and chief pollster at the Trafalgar Group, is one such pollster, a rising star in US political polling who has earned praise for predicting Trump wins in 2016 battleground states missed by most surveys, as well as key 2018 Senate races.
In 2017, FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten dubbed Cahaly “one of the most accurate pollsters in 2016”, and RealClearPolitics President Tom Bevan recently declared Trafalgar as “one of the most accurate polling operations in America.”
In the 2016 presidential and 2018 midterm elections, the Trafalgar Group used innovative polling techniques to draw out shy Trump voters passed over by conventional polls, which resulted in wide differences in polling results between Trafalgar and most other company’s surveys.
During 2016, Trafalgar was widely dismissed as an outlier or a partisan agency aimed at boosting Republican morale.
Now, however, other pollsters have begun imitating some of Trafalgar’s methods.
Cahaly spoke with Arutz Sheva recently about what makes his firm’s methods unique, the state of the 2020 presidential election, public opinions on the coronavirus pandemic and governmental responses to it, as well as why he believes most pollsters are off the mark again in 2020.
Why did Trafalgar get 2016 right when nearly everyone else got it wrong?
“Most pollsters today use out-of-date methods,” Cahaly told Arutz Sheva. “They use methods that worked fine in the 1990s, but things have changed.”
“We use techniques to get voters who wouldn’t normally share their opinions with pollsters over the phone to reveal who they really intend to vote for.”
“One question we used, for example, was the neighbor question. We’d ask people, regardless of who you plan to vote for, who do you think most of your neighbors are going to vote for. And then we’d look at a particular state and compare the answers and see the difference.”
“We used the neighbor question extensively in 2016, and to some extent in 2018,” said Cahaly.
Cahaly added that other questions and data on the respondents could then help confirm that their response to the neighbor question indicated their own personal preference.
Other pollsters have since begun using this technique to draw out shy voters, leading Trafalgar to drop the neighbor question.
“We’ve come up with some different questions this year, since people started imitating that this year.”
Overall, have most pollsters learned from their mistakes in 2016? Are they better prepared this time around?
“Here’s the fundamental problem: most of the polling companies do not compensate for this, they’re like the Pony Express – they’re kind of old fashioned.”
Many voters today, in particular conservatives and Trump supporters, are afraid to voice their opinions openly, Cahaly says, including over the phone with a pollster.
“Four years ago, Trump supporters were called deplorable, that’s the nicest thing they might be called now.”
“The absolute worst way to poll is to have the social desirability factor, when people tell you what they think you want to hear. The worst way to do that is to use live calls. People will be least honest with a person.”
“Any poll that relies strictly on live polls is going to be wrong.”
“There are so many people who just do not want to be judged or called a horrible name because of the opinion. People are afraid who is asking the question, if they’ll end up on a list.”
While most pollsters ask for the respondent by name when calling in to conduct a poll, Cahaly says this while lead many shy voters to either avoid responding at all, or to conceal their voting intentions.
“Don’t use names, it scares off voters. Anonymous calls that’s probably the most important thing of all.”
Cahaly went on to warn that polls showing Biden leading Trump by a wide margin could create “very real tensions” if Trump ends up winning, particularly if Trump wins by a narrow margin.
“If it’s very close, it could be very bad for America. If the media builds a narrative of Biden winning, but he loses, it will create very real tensions. Protests will be the least of it. It will make what happened this summer look like a piece of cake.”
“I think these bad polls are doing a disservice to the country.”
Why do the polls lately seem to be even worse for Trump than four years ago? Is he that much weaker electorally?
“What we’ve found is that Republicans are even less likely to speak with pollsters this year than they were in 2016. Much more so, in fact.”
“Also, we’re seeing people who say that they’re undecided, but other questions show that they’re actually Republican, and likely to vote for Trump.”
“We had people in Florida who are listed as undecided or as backing a third party. In our recent Florida poll, I saw people who, based on voter info, consumer info, I know that they’re Republicans. Many were from gun-owning households, military homes, many of them donated to conservatives judges and conservative candidates.”
Critics say most polling shows Trump far behind Biden, both nationwide and in battleground states, and that Trafalgar must be an outlier, or have a Republican bias. How do you respond to that?
“We said Trump was going to win in 2016 and immediately got beat up as being biased towards Republicans. In 2018 we angered a lot of Republicans when we said the GOP wouldn’t win Senate seats in Michigan, West Virginia, and Montana.”
“Our point is we don’t do this for a party. We don’t do this for a campaign. Our priority is getting it right. We give every benefit we can to a scenario which is the least favorable scenario. We look at which scenario is most favorable for Biden. We’re not trying to change our turnout model to change the outcome of our polls.”
Cahaly said Trafalgar’s recent Georgia poll, for example, which shows Trump leading by seven points, used a turnout model based on the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, which saw high levels of minority voter turnout and the non-Hispanic white vote falling to just 60% of the electorate.
“Our Georgia poll was based on a Stacey Abrams 2018 turnout level of minorities. We’re erring on the side opposite of what people would accuse us of being. Our turnout of older voters is lower and our turnout of younger people and minorities is higher. We don’t believe in exit polls to do that, we believe in actual voting data.”
“We go above and beyond to make sure it is above reproach so we can’t be accused of trying to manipulate results.”
Turning for a moment to the coronavirus and the government response to it, where does public opinion stand right now?
“More and more, people think it’s overblown. There are growing numbers of people who aren’t worried about it, who think the shutdown was a complete overreaction.”
“A lot of people are saying that the goals were changed. This started as an understanding that everyone would get the virus, and they wanted to flatten the curve so as to not overrun the hospitals. Now it became stopping people from getting it. That’s frustrated people.”
Regarding the reopening of schools, Cahaly said an overwhelming majority of parents want their kids to resume their studies.
“What I get the most, across the board, people with children want the kids to go back to school. Sixty-five percent or more want the kids to go back to school. They don’t believe it’s a threat.”
“A lot of the older folks are not for that. But people with children – regardless of what party they’re in do not want to keep their kids out of schools.”
“They do not see their lives returning to normal if the kids don’t return to school. Some of the minority parents see their children falling behind because they don’t have the ability to do online distance learning. They feel like their kids are really falling behind. And that’s widening the disadvantage between rich and poor.”
What is the state of the presidential election right now?
“If the election were to be held today, Trump would win. Absolutely. He’d get at least 274 electoral votes.”
Cahaly did say, however, that Trump would likely lose a number of states he won in 2016, giving him a narrower margin of victory compared to his 306-electoral vote four years ago.
“Ohio’s not close at all, we’re not even planning to poll there.”
“Beyond that, if the election were held today, Trump would win Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Florida, but right now he’d lose Minnesota, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Maine’s Second Congressional District.”
A recent Trafalgar poll also shows Trump trailing Biden by five points in Pennsylvania.
“Biden is from Scranton, and the polls we see in Pennsylvania aren’t like in 2016. Hillary Clinton was antithetical to blue collar America. Joe Biden is not. He is much more popular than Clinton was in Pennsylvania. It being his home state and Biden being better received in the demographics that makeup a lot of swing voters there.”
While Cahaly sees Trump doing well in Michigan and Wisconsin, winning Arizona – hitherto a reliably Republican state – could be a challenge for Trump this time around.
“Arizona is particularly difficult because Trump had bad relationship with [former Republican Arizona Senators] McCain and Flake…Arizona is going to be a tough state.”
How have recent events, like the coronavirus lockdowns, the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing riots, influenced the election?
“I’ll put it this way. When that horrible thing happened to Mr. Floyd and there were peaceful demonstrations across America, that made Biden more likely to win. When the riots started and the cancel-culture and statues were removed, that made Biden less likely to be elected.
Regarding the coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions on public activity, Cahaly said that “everything has been magnified.”
“It’s like going home for Christmas and spending time with your family and getting stuck there for two months. Problems are magnified, people’s anger.”
Cancel-culture is having a particularly strong influence on the race, Cahaly claims.
“Older people feel like their entire lives are being questioned, and they are really vexed. They feel like they’re under a great deal of scrutiny. They feel like people are making assumptions about them just because of the world that they grew up in, and they don’t like it.”
“We have an unprecedented situation of people being criticized for their opinions. There’s never been a time in our lifetimes when simply having an opinion on a political candidate can enrage someone like it does right now. People are hiding their feelings. There is a silent majority that doesn’t like all this chaos. They don’t like it, they’re frustrated by it.”
“Biden’s blue collar background might shield him to some extent. But he has found himself moving to the Bernie side of the party. In consolidating those people he is risking losing his blue collar base.”
“There are some swing voters who don’t like Trump personally, who don’t like some of the things that he’s done and said, but they like chaos in the streets even less.”
Is support for Trump among minority voters increasing or decreasing?
“There is absolutely more minority support for Trump now. At every state we looked at we saw a high percentage of minority voters who said they aren’t decided yet, but it looks like they won’t vote for Biden.”
“In terms of the African American vote, I think Trump is going to be closer to 20% and Biden closer to 80%. There’s no question. It’s especially with younger black voters.”
Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump winning eight percent of the African American vote, compared to 89% for Hillary Clinton.
“I think he’ll surprise people with the percentage of the minority vote that he ends up winning.”
Original: David Rosenberg – Arutz Sheva
This is Part Two in a two-part series.
Part One can be found here.