Even Donald Trump's supporters are ashamed of him: Many backers too embarrassed to admit it to pollsters

Scary revelation: It turns out the polls may be under-representing just how much support Donald Trump has

Published December 24, 2015 6:27PM (EST)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (AP)

Donald Trump has been the runaway leader in the Republican race for several months. Indeed, Trump has led for so long that his popularity, depressing as it is, is no longer shocking. Well, it turns out the polls may be under-representing just how popular Trump is — and that’s truly eye-opening.

People love Trump, ironically enough, because they think he’s honest, authentic. “He speaks him mind,” you often hear from passionate Trumpites. That’s scary because, presumably, the people supporting Trump agree with what he says, even if Trump himself doesn't believe it. Trump’s language is unapologetically nativist, and so his broad appeal says something unpleasant about our country. The amount of people cheering his message is a rough indication of how amenable to fascism and nativism his conservative supporters are.

And that's discouraging to say the least.

As bad as things appear to be, a new study by Morning Consult confirms what many pollsters have long suspected: Voters are more likely to support Trump in surveys taken online than in polls conducted via phone. Vox’s Michelle Hackmann summed up the results earlier this week:

“Pollsters interviewed 2,397 registered Republican voters and Republican-leaning independents about their favorite candidates in the primary. One-third of the respondents took the survey online. Another third answered the same questions posed by a live interviewer on the phone, while the final third heard the same questions in an automated phone call. Overall, 36 percent of voters picked Trump as their favorite candidate after the last Republican debate. But his levels of support differed markedly among the modes of questioning. Of the respondents answering questions online, 38 percent picked Trump for president, while only 32 percent of respondents named him when speaking to live pollsters. That pattern is unique to Trump. Ted Cruz did about 2 points better in live telephone surveys, as did Ben Carson. Jeb Bush saw no difference. The gulf grew even starker among voters with college degrees: College graduates favored Trump in online surveys over live telephone by about 10 percentage points.”

To make sense of the numbers, Hackmann referenced a psychological theory known as “social desirability bias.” Simply put, the theory holds that respondents are more likely to give socially desirable answers to survey questions when speaking to live interviewers. And the reason is straightforward: people don’t want to be judged for outlier or controversial beliefs.

In online polls, however, there’s anonymity: the fear of being judged or disliked is non-existent. So if respondents hold what they consider taboo views, they’re more likely to be honest about that in an anonymous context. As Hackmann points out, this idea was known popularly as the “Bradley effect,” when political scientists found that, in races involving black candidates, “white voters told pollsters they planned to vote for the nonwhite candidate but ended up voting against him.”

Something similar seems to be afoot with Donald Trump and Republican primary voters, although it’s not about race – at least not explicitly. Trump says outrageous things, offensive things, things that would get you sideways glances in most rooms. Unless you pal around with xenophobes and fascists, you probably don’t want to boast too much about your love for Trump. For the same reasons, you may not admit to a live interviewer that Trump’s mercurial mix of bombast and rage appeals to you.

Whatever the case, the fact that Trump’s enormous popularity may be under-represented is frightening. Trump already feels like an unstoppable political force – perhaps it’s even worse than we imagined.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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2016 Elections Bradley Effect Donald Trump Fascism Republican Party