Ehhhhhhhh. I take his point, but I’m skeptical. Especially since Christie may be susceptible to wishful thinking about whether a candidate other than Trump stands a chance at the Republican nomination in 2024.
He’s making a point here about what data nerds call “social desirability bias” and which you and I know may know as a “shy Trumper” effect. The idea is that some Americans in 2016 and even 2020 who secretly intended to vote for Trump felt embarrassed to say so when asked by pollsters, so they lied. They didn’t want to feel “judged” by the pollster, perhaps, or maybe they found too much of Trump’s behavior cringy to make them comfortable admitting that they support him. Either way, if some share of Trump voters is or was lying to pollsters out of embarrassment, we’d expect the polls to underestimate his true level of support.
I’m skeptical that a “shy Trumper” effect existed in the past in any meaningful way. The final RCP polling average in 2016 between Clinton and Trump came close to predicting the margin in the popular vote. The final margin in 2020 *did* underestimate Trump’s support by nearly three points, but pollsters’ best guess is that had less to do with social desirability bias than with “nonresponse bias.” That is, as Republicans have become increasingly distrustful of the media and the polling industry, they’re simply less likely to take the time to participate in a poll. They’re not embarrassed to say they support Trump; they just don’t deign to give the pollster the time of day. Result: Fewer Republicans participating means the polls underestimate his support.
All of that is a wind-up to Christie’s theory yesterday on “This Week.” He does believe there was a “shy Trumper” effect in 2016. But he thinks there may be what we’ll call a “bold Trumper” effect going the other way in current polling.
“The party has a fundamental decision to make and that is: Are we going to be the party of me or the party of us?” @GovChristie tells @JonKarl. “And Trump is the party of me…You don’t hear him mention anything about what’s going on in the country.” https://t.co/ngbnKbn6aT pic.twitter.com/Ysc5ys0bMK
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) July 24, 2022
There’s logic to that. In 2016, when the party preached small-government constitutional conservatism, Trump was pulling around 35 percent in some primaries. There really was a “cringe contingent” on the right that was wary of him and not thrilled to have him as nominee, but not so wary that they’d vote for Hillary Clinton instead. In 2020 the party had devolved into a cult of personality around Trump, so much so that the RNC didn’t bother passing a platform. Cult members typically aren’t shy about telling anyone, pollsters included, how devoted they are to their leader.
Christie’s theory is that the aftermath of the insurrection and Trump’s weird ongoing obsession with believing he was cheated has led many Republican voters to quietly leave the cult but unwilling to say so publicly, as loyalty to the Great Man has become the cardinal virtue of being a good Republican in 2022. Ask them if they still love Trump and want him as nominee and they’ll reflexively say, “Of course.” Send them into the privacy of a voting booth and give them Ron DeSantis as an alternative and … maybe not.
If true, that would mean Christie’s right: “Bold Trumpers” who feel obliged to declare their loyalty when it’s challenged even if they’re insincere may be artificially inflating his support in polls.
It’s a theory. But here’s another theory: Inasmuch as some Republican voters feel embarrassed by January 6 and Trump’s nutty focus on revisiting the last election, there may be a new — and real — “shy Trumper” effect at work that’s understating how much support he has within the GOP. Not every Trump voter is a member of the personality cult, after all; millions of righties have never been to a rally, never watch Fox News, don’t follow him on social media, but like his charisma and strongly preferred him in 2020 to Joe Biden. Media coverage of the January 6 hearings and reporting on Trump’s passivity while the riot was happening may seem so indefensible to some of them that they can’t bring themselves to tell pollsters that they’ll support him again in 2024 … even though they will, finding his conduct not so indefensible as to be disqualifying. They prefer him to any other Republican, warts and all.
Which means the polls could be lowballing Trump. Imagine Ron DeSantis jumping in, believing that he’s competitive in New Hampshire and Florida based on surveys there, only to discover that a meaningful number of righties have only been pretending that they’re open to a new nominee because they don’t want to be judged for not caring about January 6.
To make this more complicated, there could be “bold Trumper” *and* “shy Trumper” effects happening in different wings of the party at the same time. Some center-leaning Republicans who care more about being viewed as “respectable” might be concealing their lingering support for Trump while some MAGA voters who’ve been drilled on loyalty to Trump as the supreme conservative virtue may secretly like the cut of DeSantis’s jib. The only way to find out if the polls are inflating or undercounting Trump’s support is for the new guy to jump in and challenge him.
I’ll leave you with Sarah Longwell, who conducts regular focus groups of Republicans and lately has seen a strong shift away from wanting Trump to run again. Is that shift legit, or is it a case of embarrassed Trump supporters not wanting to admit to Longwell while the January 6 hearings are ongoing that they fully intend to support him again in 2024?