Robert Cahaly: how we got the polls right

November 4, 2020
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Whatever the final result, one thing is clear about this election: the pollsters were way off. Almost all of them showed Joe Biden taking most of the battleground states and winning comfortably. Robert Cahaly of Trafalgar took a different view. Here he is speaking to Freddie Sayers on Lockdown TV in September…

On the problem with most polls:

We think that what’s happening is what is called the social desirability bias. That means people give an answer to a question being asked about colour, that is less about honesty and more about being judged positively by the person asking the question. So, when there is a candidate who is polarising, who isn’t politically correct, you tend to give an answer that you think will make you look the best. This was very evident in 2016. We saw it in 2018 in the Florida governor’s race. We’re seeing it this year — probably more this year.

As I say quite often, four years ago the worst thing they said about the Trump supporters is that they were deplorable. This year, it’s worse. We’re seeing this effect most amplified with a live caller. So we actually think polls done by live callers are the worst way to poll this race.

On Trafalgar’s method:

We have quite a few different methods that we take together so that we can get a more accurate balance, whether it be live, automated, text, message, email, and a few different digital platforms. But, think about it this way: There are things that a person says on that Facebook page with their pictures of their family that their colleagues see. There are things they say on that private one just to vent. The problem is what they say on that private page, when they think they’re anonymous, is what’s in their heart. People are kind of putting on their best behaviour with a live person. So, what we found is that social desirability — as it was four years ago — is between 3% and 5%. We expect it could be more people who just aren’t going to tell you where they really are. They’re going to give you an answer that judges them the least.

As I mentioned, we spoke to Doug Rivers from from YouGov. They use it online, a large online panel, so there’s not a live calling method. They have the advantage that they can recontact people from their panel, who they spoke to four years ago, two years ago. His view was that 7% of those Trump voters in 2016 will switch to Biden and only 1% will switch in the other way. So, that’s where he’s pretty confident at a strong Biden advantage. What do you say to that?

On Latino and African-American Trump voters:

What we see is a lot of people who did not vote for Trump last time, who intend to vote for him this time. We see a tremendous movement in the Hispanic and African-American community, and we have yet to encounter a battleground state where Trump was doing less than 15% with black voters, and Biden was doing more than 80%. We have not encountered a state where Trump was under 30% and Biden was over 60%. Those numbers are devastating. For the other side, Democrats count on 80%+ of the black vote.

On the 2020 election:

This is not a persuasion election, it is a motivational election. Both sides have enough voters to win the election, and this is going to come down to who turns their voters out. There’s no question in my mind about this: this will be a very large turnout election. The team that does the best job at getting their people to vote is going to be the one that wins; there’s not a set number of people that are going to vote and it’s just a matter of fighting vs. mindset.

On shy Trump voters:

What we’ve seen, and what we’ve experienced is the blue-collar, Midwestern voters that were considered Democrats, for the last 20 something years who had been part of the Reagan democrat coalition, came back. They came back because they felt like there was a candidate who appealed more to regular working class Americans than any Republican ever had. I mean, let’s face it, Mitt Romney was the opposite of a Republican who appealed to working class Americans. But they are the type of people that tend to be shy Trump voters.

There are so many examples of people who are in areas where they just they don’t feel comfortable saying what they vote and the number also grows, because there are people who are suburban, with upper-middle income, higher educated mothers, who just did not like Trump on a personal level. But, they saw this level of violence, and they saw all the chaos that ensued. And what we hear from them is: I don’t like Trump, but I can’t be for that. It’s almost like they’ve been looking for a reason to hold their nose and vote for Trump and they found it.

On the battleground states:

All that matters is battleground states — the national popular vote is irrelevant. For our record in 2016, we not only got more battleground states right than any other firm, we actually got the 306 to 232 number right. People thought a lot of states were going to be for Hillary that were not. We just put a poll out last week for Florida, with Trump having a three-point lead, and we were roundly criticised for it. Then earlier this week, NBC News put one that showed it dead even.

What we show now is a very competitive race. I’ll just run through a few key states that can give you a sense where we are: Arizona, I would say probably too close to call; Michigan, I see a definite Trump lead; Wisconsin, I see a Trump lead; Minnesota, I see dead even; North Carolina, Ohio, Trump wins. Texas and Georgia are not battleground states, Trump will win — and it won’t be within three points. And Pennsylvania, I think he’s tied. The scenario I’ve just gone over there is a Trump in the mid 270s, possibly getting to just below 280.

On Covid-19 public perception:

The most common answer has become the one that is “I’m going to do what I can to keep my family safe but I’m not going to live in fear, and I’m going to go about living my life”. That, plus “I’m not worried about at all,” are well over 50% now and it’s moving. That’s why people get frustrated about any talk of more lockdowns. It’s the idea that they’re ready to get back to it, they’re ready to wear the mask, wash their hands, keep their distance — but they’re not going to just hide in their houses anymore. They’re done with all that.

On voter motivation:

I will tell you something I was told a long time ago when I first started being involved in politics — people vote against things, not for things. Until about six months ago, there were a lot of people motivated to vote against Donald Trump. But then, in the wake of the tragedy of Mr Floyd being murdered, there were protests. And some of those protests turned into violence. That violence turned into a defund the police movement, and a Black Lives Matter movement that went beyond simply protecting black lives — there were calls for statues to be torn down. We got to the point a week before July 4th, where people were suggesting Mount Rushmore was offensive.

All of a sudden, Americans who weren’t even necessarily big fans of Donald Trump said ‘what is happening in my country?’ There became a genuine debate as to whether America’s foundation, its principles, its purpose was good or bad. People still believe in America. If you make that choice, where one side thinks that America has a history to apologise for, and isn’t a good force in the world and the other side feels like America is a good force in the world, and has a history to learn from…That’s not a good scenario for an American get elected President. I think Joe Biden on the wrong side of that.

On the riots:

The slump starts every time somebody shares a video of somebody else. So when a Molotov cocktail is thrown in the street of a town, or people see messages about defunding police, or people talking about killing policemen and how that would be fair — that’s the stuff that also motivates people to vote against. And that stuff is not happening in a vacuum. It took Biden’s campaign a month to actually admit they were against the violence that they saw.

What politicians say means very little to me — what politicians do means everything. And the fact that Biden did a reverse course and sort of criticised the violence after months of embracing it, or suggesting it doesn’t exist, tells me he knows it’s real.

On Nate Silver:

This is the guy who said Hillary had a 70% chance of being President. I dismiss that offhand. I’m not interested.


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