The Trafalgar Group got key races right when others were wrong in 2016 and 2018. Will the Republican pollster do it again in 2020?
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n 2016, every poll of the presidential race in Michigan, except one, showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump. While other polls conducted in November 2016 showed Clinton ahead by about five percentage points, the Trafalgar Group showed Trump leading by two points. On Election Day, Trump won Michigan by 0.3 points, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1988.
A similar story played out in Pennsylvania in 2016: Non-partisan public polls showed Clinton leading Trump by two to six points in the run-up to the election. Trafalgar showed Trump ahead by one point (the only poll showing Trump ahead), and he carried Pennsylvania by 0.7 points on Election Day.
In 2020, Trafalgar is again out of step with the herd. In August, Trafalgar released polls showing Trump within a half-percentage point of Biden in Minnesota and ahead by about one point in Wisconsin and Michigan. When the Michigan poll was released over the weekend, Trafalgar’s president Robert Cahaly boasted on Twitter with some cause: “Doubt what we @trafalgar_group say about #MI #Elections2020 at your own peril. History is not on your side.”
Cahaly earned a retweet from the president himself, but the Republican pollster insists he’s not trying to curry favor with Trump or the Republican National Committee. “If we’re not right, our business dries up,” Cahaly tells National Review.
Cahaly thinks Trafalgar has gotten it right when others were wrong because its surveys “don’t get people who are too interested in politics. We better identify hidden voters.”
“When we talk about hidden voters, what we’re talking about is the social-desirability bias, and that is when people basically tell a live-caller what they think will get them judged least harshly,” says Cahaly. “Some races have that, some races don’t.” Cahaly points to the Florida 2018 gubernatorial race as an example. Democrats had branded Republican Ron DeSantis as a racist, and all pollsters, except Trafalgar, showed Democrat Andrew Gillum with a lead in the days before the election. DeSantis won the election by 0.4 points.
“In 2020, the presidential question has social-desirability bias,” says Cahaly. He tries to capture the views of “hidden voters” in several ways. “I start with a voter file that has everything from occupation to incomes to education levels to voting history to likely religion,” says Cahaly. “We give people multiple ways to participate in our polls,” he adds. “We do live calls, we do automated calls, we do texts, we do emails, we do other digital platforms.” Cahaly tries to get a sample of at least 1,000 respondents in any statewide poll: “Big samples are better samples.”
He thinks a lot of pollsters for media outlets simply ask too many questions — if a pollster is asking 30 questions, “you end up with people who really care too much about politics,” says Cahaly. Trafalgar’s surveys ask “no more than nine [questions] and [take] less than three minutes to complete.” Cahaly didn’t name any specific 2020 clients, but he says that the firm isn’t paid to poll the first question in its surveys — the presidential race — and a mix of private businesses and political clients hire his firm to ask questions two through nine.
Trafalgar is not a broken clock that gets rewarded for always pointing toward GOP victories. For example, it showed Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow leading by nine points in its final poll of Michigan in 2018; Stabenow defeated Republican John James by six points. Trafalgar showed Montana Democrat Jon Tester leading by one point in 2018; he won by three points. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of 48 Trafalgar polls, the pollster is on average biased 0.9 points in favor of Republicans.
Trafalgar is just one pollster, of course, and the FiveThirtyEight forecast now gives Biden a two-in-three chance of winning in November. But given Trafalgar’s recent success, it’s worth paying attention to its findings. At the moment, Cahaly thinks Trump is the one who has a two-in-three chance of winning in November. “Based on what I’m seeing, I’d have to say I’d give [Trump] a 68 percent chance of winning reelection,” says Cahaly. “I would have told you 60 [percent] two weeks ago.”