One of the emerging themes of the last weeks of the presidential campaign is the resurgence of the right's "unskewed polls" theory, which holds that when Republicans are behind it's because the pollsters are sampling the wrong people.
In 2012 this was taken so seriously that Election Night on Fox News was a legendary train wreck as Karl Rove and other guru pundits had to eat their words. There are other theories about "missing white voters" who are being activated by the appeal of Republican nominee Donald Trump to their economic anxieties and the "shy" Trump voters who are afraid to tell pollsters that they really like him.
My colleague Matthew Sheffield analyzed all the data about these theories in his Salon piece a few days ago and they don't seem to be borne out by any existing evidence. This sort of poll skepticism isn't unusual among those working for losing campaigns generally. Given one in which the candidate himself is saying the polls are being systematically rigged against him by a cabal of media and political elites from the other party, it would be surprising if there weren't abundant conspiracy theories to explain the polling.
That's not to say it's impossible that there might be voters who are afraid to confess their allegiance to a particular candidate in this election. It's the most contentious one we've had in many years. I suspect most of us have had personal or professional situations where we just avoided the topic of the election altogether for fear of a brawl.
But the idea that Trump voters are hiding their true allegiance in large numbers strikes me as implausible. It just doesn't track with the swashbuckling, politically incorrect, in-your-face ethos of the Trump movement. Considering the huge gender gap, one would have to assume the shy voters would be a hidden group of Trump men who are telling pollsters they're voting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. If you're the kind of man who likes Trump, you're probably not the kind who feels the need to hide it.
On the other hand, there could be some "shy" Clinton voters out there who say they are voting for Trump in order to keep the peace with their aggressively pro-Trump husbands and maintain their standing in their conservative communities.
These would be the type of women described in this fascinating piece in Marie Claire by Lyz Lenz. who lives in Iowa Trump country. She describes herself as a "pro-choice, same-sex-rights advocating, Christian-identified feminist" who is known in her community as the "crazy liberal." She found out something interesting when she went to caucus for Hillary Clinton last winter:
As I made my way to the Clinton section, I saw the unmistakable wide smile of my neighbor Melody, a Christian mother I have always assumed votes Republican. Melody is the former director of a local Christian non-profit -- a revered religious leader in our town. And the last person I expected to see out here supporting Hillary.
I was stunned. "This is our little secret," she said as she gave me a warm hug. We laughed nervously.
Over the course of the 2016 presidential election, I've come to find that Melody is not the only conservative woman in my community who's secretly voting Democrat. While nodding along with their husbands' politics and passing as Trump supporters in their neighborhoods, there's a group of women making fervent plans for what happens when they're finally alone in the voting booth.
Iowa is a swing state that that has leaned toward Trump throughout this campaign. According to polling and focus groups, Clinton is deeply unpopular among this population of conservative white religious voters. It seems odd that they would prefer the crude, thrice-married libertine, but Clinton's challenge to traditional gender roles seems to have "trumped" those concerns. Among the most socially conservative evangelicals there is a tradition of wifely submission that requires women to adhere to their husband's choices in worldly matters, and the men of Iowa love Trump.
Lenz reported that there are many clandestine "women for Hillary" groups out there:
There are hundreds of private Facebook groups with names like "Secret Hillary Club," most of which were formed during the caucus, when Clinton supporters felt alienated by ardent Bernie Sanders fans. But now, these online groups have coalesced into places of support and encouragement for counties that burn predominantly red in the polls. Cynthia Silver, a director and acting teacher living in New York City, started her pro-Hillary private Facebook group after a heated social media argument with a former student. Since Clinton won the nomination, Silver has been surprised to see the group grow to well over 2,000 members from all over the country.
Last spring, Slate's Michelle Goldberg wrote about how surprised she was to find out that her New York neighborhood voted for Clinton when it seemed that all her neighbors were feeling the Bern. She spoke with several Hillary voters who said they had just decided to keep quiet to avoid confrontation. Imagine how it must be in Trump enclaves with people who wear "Hillary for Prison" T-shirts (or worse).
There is some empirical evidence of a hidden female vote making a difference — for example, in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, in which Clinton won big over Barack Obama even though polls showed her trailing. It's impossible to prove what really happened, but some online wags (including me) dubbed it the "Tweety Effect" after an internet nickname for MSNBC's Chris Matthews. The press, including Matthews, had displayed brutally sexist attitudes toward Clinton in the days leading up to the vote, and that may have made women angry enough that they came out in greater numbers than usual, perhaps even prompting some to switch their votes in order to send a message.
According to the polls, the gender gap in this election is already profound. Clinton is the first female presidential nominee from a major party, and the opposition chose an aggressive, rank misogynist to oppose her. The fact that in the face of Trump's overheated followers, some women are reluctant to support her openly — especially women who normally vote Republican — is a perfect example of why the secret ballot is so important.
No matter what your community or your family or your employer says, your vote is your private decision. There may be quite a few women like those Iowa evangelicals who will cast a vote for Hillary Clinton this year and never tell a soul.