The silent majority

Tallmadge, Ohio

In 1968, Richard Nixon appealed to what he called America’s “silent majority” to secure the keys to the White House, in the wake of a growing and vocal Vietnam War protest movement. The term referred to the great number of socially conservative but fairly-politically-unengaged Middle Americans – regular folks who, when not too busy with work and church and childbearing, can swing a general election.

Donald Trump’s hopes of occupying the Oval Office now largely rest on this same constituency.

Less than two weeks out from D Day, the polls have Hillary Clinton firmly ahead. As of this morning, the Reuters/Ipsos poll has Clinton up by six points in a two-way race (43-37) and the USA Today/Suffolk poll has the former Secretary of State leading by a considerable 10 points (49-39).

Political polls are always beholden to the inherent biases of those asking the questions, answering them and performing the analysis. Most of them involve a polling and research organisation partnering with a media provider to gain access to voters, and in an age where media is becoming more opinionated and political ideology is a more likely commonality among readers of a particular outlet than geography, the chances of biased response one way or the other are heightened further.

But at the risk of agreeing with Trump, in this presidential election, the likelihood that the polls are flawed is especially high.

First, as Trump makes unfair media coverage a central plank of his campaign, it is likely that many of his supporters are tuning out from mainstream outlets altogether – instead getting their news from more Trump-friendly sources like Sean Hannity’s TV and radio programs, booming ‘alt-right’ platform Breitbart and the echo chamber of Facebook.

Second, when it comes to polling via phone or door-to-door canvassing, accurate results require people to honestly self-identify, for which there is little incentive or reward.

Indeed, in this climate of an election between two of the most polarising figures in American public life, few are willing to put up their hand, especially for Trump. Travelling around the country I see few bumper stickers or yard-signs – particularly in battleground states like Ohio where Democrats and Republicans live side by side.

But notwithstanding the relatively few out and proud supporters, I get the sense there are a great many closet Trump fans hiding in the shadows. While they may shuffle their feet and non-committaly mention their mutual dislike of both candidates, their eyes suggest they have already made up their minds – unable to cast a vote for a Democrat, and particularly one with the decades of baggage and scandal that Clinton entails.

Should this ‘closet Trump’ constituency be as large as I suspect, it could be decisive yet, despite the polls suggesting the race is all but over.

Moreover, the opposite is true of a very different constituency. Hillary Clinton is working hard to inspire Bernie Sanders’ army of lemmings and Millennials, enlisting pop stars like Katy Perry and J Lo to hold rallies in her name. But those whose short-term memory is not obfuscated by bong haze will likely not take kindly to being called “basement dwellers” by the Democratic nominee. Considering many of these voters have never voted before – and may have an active social life beyond politics – staying home on November 8 might not be outside the realm of possibility, further aiding Trump’s chances.

By contrast, like kids on Christmas eve, Trump’s hardcore supporters – those that Hillary Clinton accidentally revealed she considers “deplorable” in a rare campaign gaffe – are so excited to vote they can hardly sleep.

In a system where voting is voluntary, the enthusiasm of a candidate’s base (whatever its size) is a hugely important factor.

While there is little doubt a majority of Americans prefer Clinton to Trump, unless they send in an early ballot or actually turn up to vote on the day, their social media rants and time spent filling out surveys will all have amounted to nothing. Something as seemingly trivial as bad weather can have a major impact if a candidate’s support is only half-hearted.

Some have even suggested that Trump’s more misogynistic comments and unforced errors – such as claiming this week he will sue the women accusing him of sexual assault or describing his opponent as a “nasty woman” in the third debate – are not accidents at all but a deliberate attempt by his campaign to aggravate women voters so completely that they literally switch off the TV and go on holidays.

To be clear, I’m not saying Trump will win or even that it is likely. While polls have problems they are still helpful in painting a picture of broad trends, and the trend suggests a more than substantial lead for Clinton.

But as the proverb goes, it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.

Nor the orange man.


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Published on 26 October 2016

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