Are Polls Overstating Donald Trump’s Real Level Of Support, Or Understating It?

There have been many arguments that polling has over-stated Donald Trump's actual level of support among likely Republican voters, but there's also a good argument that they are understating it and that Trump may do better when people start voting than many think.

Donald Trump Speaking

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who is currently averaging around three percent or lower in the polls at the national level, as well as in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, contends that the polls showing real estate mogul Donald Trump leading the Republican field are overstating his support:

Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul (Ky.) on Sunday said it’s “deeply disturbing” that Donald Trump is still the race’s front-runner and predicted his rival would be “wiped out in a general election.”


Paul, who was in danger of being cut from the main stage of the last Republican debate because of low poll numbers, questioned the accuracy of public surveys.

“We’ve all let the polls consume us too much. I don’t think the polls are very accurate,” he said, noting that the polls were off by 13 points a week before the recent Kentucky gubernatorial race.

He said Trump is performing well in the polls because he’s getting a disproportionate amount of media coverage and many respondents who say they’ll vote for him aren’t likely to turn out on primary day.

It’s not uncommon for candidates who are behind in the polls to say that the polls aren’t accurate, of course, and as Jazz Shaw reminds us that the “skewed polls” argument is one that was made quite frequently back during the 2012 campaign by conservatives who didn’t want to admit to themselves that all of the available evidence leading up to the General Election was pointing toward the re-election of President Obama. On some level, of course, such arguments are understandable, especially from candidates themselves, but that doesn’t make them any more accurate. Indeed, in Paul’s case he isn’t really making the argument that the polls are skewed so much as he’s repeating the axiomatic point that Trump is doing well in the polls because he’s getting so much media coverage. There is, perhaps, some truth in that statement but it’s also the case that Trump is getting so much media attention because he’s not only leading in the polls, but because he’s leading by wide margins nationally and, with the exception of Iowa, at the state level in all of the early states, and that he’s been holding those leads virtually since he entered the race this past summer. Moreover, Trump has held these leads despite the fact that he’s often gotten exceedingly negative coverage because of the controversial things he’s said about Mexicans, John McCain, Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, a disabled New York Times reporter, and Muslims. To say, then, as Paul seems to be saying here that Trump’s success is purely a creature of media coverage is completely invalid and largely a sign of desperation on his part.

Viewing Paul’s comments in their most generous light, it’s certainly possibly to make the argument that Trump’s support in the polls may not translate into support in the polls, an issue I discussed myself earlier today. As I noted, there are signs that Trump may not have the kind of ground operation in early states like Iowa that is generally needed to get people to the polls and the caucus locations, and if that’s true then the polls could well be significantly over stating Trump’s support. That’s something we can’t know until people actually start voting, though, but yes it could be the case that Trump’s support is being overstated in no small part because of his celebrity and that it won’t translate into success at the polls but that’s a hypothesis that can’t be proven just yet.

On the other side of the coin, Andrew McGill at The Atlantic takes note of a study that suggests that Trump’s support in the polls, especially in the live voter polls that most major polling companies still rely upon, may in fact be understated. Namely, McGill notes, the study suggests that people may be embarrassed to say that they support Trump when talking to a live pollster and are more honest about their support when polled via an automated poll or in one of the new online polling methods that are becoming more popular in this election cycle:

Last week, research firm Morning Consult put this hypothesis to the test. Recruiting 2,397 registered Republicans and Republican-leaning voters online, the company split the sample into thirds—sending one group to answer election questions on a web site, another to an automated interactive voice response phone line, and the rest to a call center staffed by live interviewers.

Critically, this survey drew its respondents from the same general pool, which had all answered demographic questions beforehand. The only variation was the mode of interview.

The findings, released today: The Trump mode effect is definitely real. Just over 38 percent of people who answered via a web form said they  supported Trump, compared to 32 percent of their peers who spoke to a call-center employee, a 6 percentage point gap. But that gap, among college-educated respondents, widened to 9 percentage points.

A similar split held true for registered voters who participated in previous elections, indicating that politically engaged people may also be more reluctant to tell a pollster their true opinion of Trump.  One alternate explanation for the gap in levels of support for Trump registered by different polls has been their varying definitions of likely voters; live-interview polls tend also to use more restrictive definitions, making it hard to tease the effects apart. These results, though, imply that mode effects play a larger role than likely voter screens in the discrepancies.

To some degree, what this study is suggesting is a reverse version of the so-called “Bradley Effect,” which was named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of California in both 1982 and 1986. According to polling in both elections, but especially in 1982, Bradley performed far better in the polling than he ultimately did at the polls. This was in an era when all polling was still conducted solely by live pollsters rather than any automated means. Given the discrepancy between the polls and the result of the election results, many pollsters and political scientists postulated that voters were telling pollsters that they would support Bradley, and African-American, or that they were undecided due to social pressure but that these voters ultimately ended up voting for Republican candidate George Dukemejian. Because it relied heavily on assuming what was on the mind of voters both when they talked to pollsters and when they voted, the entire theory was heavily dependent on assumptions of what was on the mind of voters when they were polled and when they voted, the “Bradley effect” remains simply a theory that voters felt social pressure to tell pollsters they supported an African-American candidate but no such pressure when they went to vote. However, the fact that there was evidence of a similar effect in other races where African-Americans were candidates kept the theory alive long enough that there were many who wondered if it would play a role n the 2008 Presidential election when polling was showing Barack Obama performing so well in the polls. If there ever was a “Bradley Effect,” the fact that President Obama won both election and re-election to the Presidency would suggest that changed attitudes about race since the early 1980s had greatly diminished this effect.

What this study is suggesting, then, is basically a reverse “Bradley Effect” when it comes to Trump which leads voters to be reluctant to admit that they support Trump when talking to a live person, but more willing to state their opinion when dealing with an automated phone poll, or one of the new, supposedly more scientific, online polls that are becoming more prominent as this election cycle goes on. To some extent, of course, accepting the results of this survey requires accepting that the automated and online polls are, generally speaking, as good at their demographic and other screening as live polling is. If that’s not true, then the discrepancies can’t necessarily be said to be due solely to the fact that people are embarrassed to say they support Trump. It’s worth noting, though, that this “mode effect,” as the study refers to it, is seemingly replicated in a separate study done by the Pew Research Center, which also found that this impact was more prevalent on questions where “social desirability,” such as the desire to not appear t support a controversial candidate or issue position, plays a significant role. In this sense, it is similar to the argument that the advocates of the “Bradley Effect” made that poll respondents felt some psychic pressure to appear to be open-minded by appearing to be open to the idea of supporting an African-American candidates when talking to a pollster, but to act differently in the anonymity provided by the polling place. In addition to the Pew study,  Henry Olsen at The Atlantic, recently the possibility that Trump’s actual level of support may actually be greater than what we’re seeing in the polls, and used the example of the anti-immigrant right-wing parties in Europe as support for his argument.

If this “Trump Effect” exists, then, it could be the case that Trump’s actual level of support among Republicans, and perhaps outside the Republican Party, could be higher than it appears in the polls, and if that’s true then we could be in for an interesting 2016 campaign season. Much like the “Bradley Effect,” though, we won’t have any evidence to argue over regarding this potential phenomenon until people actually start voting. As McGill notes in his piece, though, if there is a “Trump Effect” then it could work against Trump in Iowa, where voters must get up in front of their friends and neighbors and state their support for their candidate publicly. As McGill says, if voters are too embarrassed to tell an anonymous pollster about how they really feel about Trump then it’s unclear how they’ll feel about doing it in such an open forum. Given that, the more likely location for demonstrating the existence of a “Trump Effect” would be in the early primary states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, where voters can vote in privacy and anonymity without worry that people will know that they voted for an undesirable candidate. If the “Trump Effect” does exist, though, then Donald Trump could end up doing far better going forward than even the polls are saying right now.

Here’s the Morning Consult study for those interested:

Morning Consult Mode Effect Study by Doug Mataconis

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 2016 Election, Political Theory, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My gut says that his actual voter support peaks around that infamous 27%, which if you are talking about GOP primary voters alone, could well be 40% or more. This is today’s GOP we are talking about after all.

  2. DrDaveT says:

    What an utterly depressing hypothesis — that there are people who are intelligent enough and aware enough to be embarrassed to be seen supporting Trump, but who support him anyway. Pathetic, yet contemptible.

  3. Bill Lefrak says:

    This really is a fascinating question.

    Trump’s supporters are the lowest common denominators: dumb, uneducated, detached and irrational. It’s a rabble of government clerical workers, crackers, racists, lunatics, trust fund babies, faux thumper bots, rage complex people and people who despise brown Catholics. On the one hand, the polling might vastly be overstating the vote, because ultimately a large percentage of those nitwits either don’t actually show up or they invalidate their own ballots or they accidently vote for other people. True riff raff.

    On the other hand, there could be at work here some sort of variant of the famous Bradley effect, as Trump even to the deaf, dumb and blind is a know nothing buffoon, and people might be embarrassed to admit they support him, they might in turn be telling pollsters they support someone else, but in the privacy of the ballot booth they’ll pull the trigger for the guy they really want, Trump. Yee-haw.

    Then of course there’s the elephant in the room, that the Democrat-dominated polling services and media outlets for obvious reasons clearly want Trump to be the nominee. So there could be some material degree of intentional polling bias, too. After all if Hillary and Trump faced each other in a general election 1000 times, Hillary would win quite literally 1000 times.

    Alas, if a real state such as California, Ohio, Texas or Florida first were voting, we’d find out for sure and right quick whether the polling is wrong. The problem, though, is that first comes Iowa, a retarded caucus and then comes New Hampshire, a retarded primary in a tiny, lily-white state where government is the largest employer. By the time we get to a legit state, Trump could have all the mo and everyone else might have dropped out, in which even the accuracy of the present polling could remain a mystery.

  4. Tony W says:

    @Bill Lefrak: For Christ’s sake – is there anybody you don’t hate? How do you even keep track of all the categories you have put people into?

  5. JohnMcC says:

    @Bill Lefrak: I take great personal humbrage at your vicious attack on innocent “faux thumper bots”. I will vouch for their complete benevolence and would only caution my friends here not to get them confused with the horrible “TRUE thumper bots”. They are the actual despicable ones.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Bill Lefrak: Wow. Just to pick out one thing, WTF is a “faux thumper bot”?

  7. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @gVOR08: You need only ask the all-knowing, all-seeing interwebs thingie to discover that Thumper_bot is the identity of a Japanese Twitterist and the handle of some guy on My Space. Which would make a faux thumper bot someone who is neither of those two people.

    As to whether M. Le Frak is aware of either of those two facts–your guess is as good as mine, but I’m leaning toward no.

  8. Slugger says:

    My brother-in-law who lives in a small town near the Iowa-Illinois border thinks that Trump has real support in his community. Farm employment is down, but farm production is up. Caterpillar, John Deere, and International Harvester employ fewer people, but world wide production is up. Walmarts just outside the city limits are eliminating the in town stores. Hipsters, gay people, and intellectuals on the coasts are making money. It should not be a surprise that Trump’s message resonates with the poor schmucks left behind and the people Mr. Lefrak lists. Will they go and vote? I think a real GOTV effort would pay off. I don’t know if Trump really wants it; I doubt that six months ago he thought that he had a chance.

  9. CSK says:


    Do the “poor schmucks” understand that Trump despises them? Really, truly despises them? This is a man whose insecurity is so vast that he’s terrified of being associated with anyone who lacks what he deems as “class”–a vulgarian nightmare of tacky excess.

    If Trump could buy the Venus de Milo, he’d gold-plate it, have it plumbed, and use it as a shower attachment.

  10. Rafer Janders says:


    Hipsters, gay people, and intellectuals on the coasts are making money.

    Intellectuals make money???

  11. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Intellectuals make money???

    This one does … Controlling the means of production rocks !

  12. stonetools says:

    Are the polls correctly stating Trump’s level of support? We’ll know in six weeks. Meanwhile, @BillKristol had this to say about Hillary Clinton:

    Clinton grandchild will be a welcome summer pick-me-up for Hillary after Sanders upsets her for the nomination…

    To which my Twitter response was:

    Phew, I was worried for a bit but HRC can start picking out the drapes for the Oval Office. It’s a done deal.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    What was the post from a couple weeks back? Can rhetoric be blamed for inciting violence???

  14. grumpy realist says:

    Listed as “Trump makes vulgar attack against Hillary Clinton”

    Amazing. And this is the man we want representing the US in conjunction with the rest of the world?

    Donald, there’s class and there’s crass. Don’t confuse the two.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. Given what The Donald has done with his hotels/condos/own living quarters I think the term “short-fingered vulgarian enamored of gold leaf” is an accurate description.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    What is Rand Paul’s point supposed to be? That Trump is really only beating him by 30 points, not 33? That his paltry 3% would magically jump to an impressive 4% if Trump weren’t schlon screwing up the polling?

  17. al-Ameda says:


    Hipsters, gay people, and intellectuals on the coasts are making money. It should not be a surprise that Trump’s message resonates with the poor schmucks left behind and the people Mr. Lefrak lists.

    With the exception of hipsters, gay people, and intellectuals on the coasts – you just trashed the Silicon Valley based economy that has taken the Bay Area to a region-wide unemployment rate of less that 4%.

    Helpful hint Number 666: Next time, be direct, blame modernization, or poor management at John Deere, International Harvester, or Catepillar for the lost of industrial/manufacturing jobs in the Midwest and Rust Belt. They’ve had over 3 decades to adjust to new economic realities.

  18. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK: I’m not sure “despises” is the right word. I suspect there’s a big overlap between his electoral supporters and the people who patronize his casinos. How do con men and marketers feel about their marks? Contempt? Or is it more, maybe, like a farmer feels about corn? No real affect, it’s just there to be harvested?

    I have said for years that if GOP voters knew how GOP elites feel about them, there’d be a Dem landslide.

  19. de stijl says:

    The reason that Political Science types can’t understand Trump is that his success and continued success is novel and abnormal. Establishment levers and money should have already shut him down in their understanding of the world.

    That Trump is still in the field, let alone trouncing all the other R candidates, is galling to the profession let alone its practitioners. They cannot understand, nor cope with, Trump’s success so far. They see the American political world as a fairly simple and understandable construct:

    – If you know the age, race, population density, educational attainment, income, and most crucially, previous voting behavior, of a set, then you can fairly well predict how that precinct / city / county / state will likely vote.

    They’re right. Knowing these things usually allows to understand and predict voting behavior really well.

    Until the 2016 Republican Presidential race.

    The current model is failing because … why? It seems to me that the current Poli Sci model that says that Trump should already have dropped out is missing some salient attitudinal elements. Notably, partisan intensity, partisan zeitgeist, and the perceived knowledge / narrative of the previous Presidential races.

    Republican voters, so far, are strongly polling that they want a bad-ass, a kick-ass, an anti-PC cultural warrior, anti-“Other”. Truly, for strong partisan R voters, we’ve entered the post-policy era. Belligerence and strong words, and the perceived ability to actually carry those strong words to fruition, are the most compelling traits that are judged by this voter set. Furthermore, a repudiation of the failures of the 2008 and 2012 losses that can only be attributed to the perceived RINOishness of those candidates.

    What the actual policy is trying to accomplish is secondary at best. As long as we’re, as a nation, kicking ass, and way too busy to even be thinking about taking the names of those whose asses we’ve kicked, then assuredly, we’re on the right path.

    That feeling, that zeitgeist, that desire for righteous retribution against enemies both foreign and domestic, is the the thing that is most notably missing from most political science analysis of the 2015 R race that I’ve read.

    That Donald Trump of all people is the locus and focus of that feeling in this race is unexpected, ludicrous, shocking and shameful. A plurality of R voters (almost a majority) want Trump to be our next President. Donald friggin’ Trump.

    It’s not even a new thing. We’ve seen it at the state level many times over the last few cycles, and even in 2012 when the not-Romney carousel was spinning.

    The lunatic fringe is no longer fringe. That’s the basic reason that models that predict Trump’s irrelevance fail.

  20. CSK says:


    I have to disagree that Trump doesn’t despise his marks. After all, exterminators make a good living getting rid of vermin, but they don’t particularly like rats and roaches other than as a means to make money. In Trump’s case, I think it’s real contempt for his followers–as I said, because of his massive insecurities. He would LOVE to be a blueblood, but he never will be one. Without his inherited money, he’d be just another flabby old lush sitting in a bar somewhere mumbling about kicking pansy-assed liberals. That’s the kind of follower he attracts, because like calls to like.

  21. DrDaveT says:


    If Trump could buy the Venus de Milo, he’d gold-plate it, have it plumbed, and use it as a shower attachment.

    And he’d put the arms back on first. They would be yuuuge.