Think back to the fall of 2016.
Donald Trump had emerged victorious from a protracted and acrimonious primary campaign and fended off efforts to “free the delegates” during the GOP national convention that summer.
Ted Cruz, the last standing rival who presented a serious challenge to Trump’s nomination, finally offered a halfhearted endorsement of the Republican nominee after months of refusing to do so, and the Never Trump movement was in full swing.
Hardly anyone gave Trump a shot. According to some reports, Trump himself didn’t even think he would win.
Then he did.
In all the hand-wringing and shock analyses that followed, one compelling explanation given for the gap between what most people expected and what actually transpired was the notion of the “shy Trump voter.”
According to the analysis, a large number of Trump supporters, when asked by pollsters whom they intended to vote for in the presidential election, were hesitant to reveal their preference, skewing the results and causing people to underestimate Trump’s true level of support.
It was assumed that these voters either didn’t trust the media or the entity conducting the poll, or they were worried about what others would think about them if they said they were supporting Trump.
After all, by this time, Trump had already been branded a narcissist, misogynist, and racist, and most people are reluctant to be associated with anyone labeled as one of those.
Fast forward seven years, and an argument can be made that we’re witnessing a similar phenomenon, only in reverse. That is, how many Republican Party primary voters are reluctant to say they’re not supporting Trump? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask.
Consider the circumstances.
Despite being forced to relinquish the presidency, Trump is still the de facto leader of the Republican Party. And his status is well-earned.
He created the environment for the strongest economy in modern history. He helped the country achieve energy independence. He made significant strides in securing the border. He asserted American power on the world stage without getting the country entangled in any new foreign conflicts. And he set the stage for overturning Roe v. Wade with the appointment of three conservative Supreme Court justices.
Although I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, I enthusiastically supported him in 2020 because of his stellar record on these issues, and his vote totals from the two elections indicate that around 11 million other Americans made the same decision.
After a period of a few months following the January 6 riots, and as Biden’s initial popularity began to fall, Trump reasserted himself as the better alternative to the commander-in-chief, much like an ex-girlfriend dumped for someone prettier is all too eager to point out the flaws of her former partner’s new lover.
Trump made a slew of endorsements in the primaries ahead of the 2022 midterm election, and Biden framed the contest as one in which American democracy was being threatened by “extreme MAGA Republicans.”
Following a disappointing performance by Republicans in November — including several who received his endorsement — Trump announced he was running for president a third time just a week after votes were cast. He had teased the announcement for months, and some observers surmised he was trying to clear the field by getting out in front of any potential challengers.
And Trump’s endorsements of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for House speaker and Mitt Romney’s niece Ronna McDaniel for reelection as chair of the Republican National Committee effectively blocked any possibility for conservatives more aligned with Trump’s base to assume those roles.
Whereas Trump positioned himself as the outsider in 2016, now he acts like he’s entitled to the nomination.
As Blaze TV host and Iowa grassroots organizer Steve Deace recently observed, Trump’s “just not the same guy” he was in 2016.
He’s just not the same guy. https://t.co/xoQJogrzKh
— Steve Deace (@SteveDeaceShow) September 25, 2023
One-time Trump lawyer and fellow Fulton County, Ga., indictee Jenna Ellis recently said he “became the swamp.”
Granted, his supporters don’t see it that way, but there’s certainly a widespread sentiment that everyone else should drop out of the race and fall in line. And the polls would seem to suggest that Trump’s nomination is inevitable. But what if they’re not really giving us an accurate look at what people are thinking if they’re even paying attention at all?
After months of headlines dominated by news of one Trump indictment after another, the race is only now beginning to focus on the issues.
Regardless of who they’re supporting, nearly every Republican would agree Trump’s indictments are politically motivated, legally flawed, and nothing short of a double standard. In this environment, it’s inevitable that admitting one prefers someone other than Trump for president would elicit criticism and guilt for being disloyal. Trump and his influencers have certainly done their best to press that point.
On top of that, the press and Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R-Fla.) political opponents have proclaimed nonstop that his campaign is imploding and destined for failure. Just like no one wants to be associated with a racist, there aren’t too many people willing to hitch their wagon to someone perceived as a loser.
Polling is also notoriously difficult, with only a small fraction of people contacted actually agreeing to be surveyed. As Deace recently suggested, it isn’t unreasonable to assume those most enthusiastic about the race (i.e. Trump supporters) would be more eager to respond to a pollster.
Finally, there’s evidence voters in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire are still making up their minds about who to support. As we saw in 2016, a favorable showing in one of those states has the potential to reframe the narrative going forward.
Does all this mean the polls can’t be trusted, and Trump isn’t really up by 40+ points? No, but races aren’t decided by polls. The first votes aren’t cast for more than three months, and plenty could change in that time.
And like we saw in 2016, the polls don’t always get it right.