By Filomeno Sta. Ana III
The American people have chosen change. Joe Biden is their President-elect, having obtained more than the 270 electoral college votes needed to win. With respect to the popular vote, with 93% of votes already counted, President-elect Biden leads by close to four million votes.
It is a sufficient margin that should put to rest any doubt on the Biden victory. It is convincing. But that winning margin is actually narrow. In terms of vote percentage, Biden leads Donald Trump by less than three points (though this can increase once the final count is done).
In the swing states, the margin for Biden is razor thin. (These states determine the final election outcome, for voters in these places tend to swing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans.) Biden’s winning margin in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (part of the “blue wall” since voters in these states lean towards the Democrats) is less than a percentage point (pp). In Pennsylvania, he leads by 0.55 pp; in Wisconsin, by 0.62 pp. In other battleground states, Biden leads in Georgia by 0.18 pp and in Arizona by 0.56 pp.
The tight race surprises many. After all, the pre-election surveys, including the forecast of FiveThirtyEight, which consolidates and weighs polling data, showed that Biden would defeat Trump in the national polls by more than eight points.
Anyhow, a win is a win. A hard-fought win is sweet for Biden and the Democrats. Obviously, the loss is most bitter for Trump.
Nevertheless, what could have explained the narrower margin, the polling error?
To answer that question, an article — actually an interview — done by Zack Stanton, the Politico Magazine digital editor, is a must read. It is titled “‘People are going to be shocked’: Return of the ‘shy’ Trump voter?” (politico.com, Oct. 29, 2020).
The interviewees, Dutch economist Arie Kapteyn of the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research and pollster Robert Cahaly of the opinion polling Trafalgar Group expressed their skepticism over the pre-election surveys that predicted a big Biden victory. Working independently from each other, they concluded that the majority of the surveys underestimated support for Trump. Their separate forecasts in 2016 went against the tide as they predicted a Trump victory over Clinton.
The interviewees offered unique insights into survey techniques and questions and respondents’ behavior. For example, to uncover the real but hidden opinion of a respondent, one must find ways to reduce the “social desirability” bias.
To quote, Kapteyn, “We actually get a 10-point lead, nationally, for Biden over Trump…. But if you look at the ‘social circle’ question, Biden only gets like a 5- or 6-point lead…. In general — and certainly on the phone — people may still be a little hesitant to say… that they’re Trump voters.”
The learning here is how a survey can correct for biases that affect either candidate. In other words, a survey that addresses the social desirability bias will capture the latent preferences for both Biden and Trump. Instead of just asking the question whether voters are for Biden or Trump, the pollster should also ask a “social circle” question like: “Who do you think your friends and neighbors will vote for?” In this manner, says Kapteyn, “it is easier for people to share their true opinions without fear of being judged for their views.”
Correcting the social desirability bias does not necessarily favor one candidate. As Kapteyn said, there is symmetry in the shyness.
Cahaly has a different view on the shy voter, but it also makes sense. Asked if he thinks there are shy Biden voters, he answered: “No. And not because it’s just for Republicans. For example, had Bernie Sanders been the nominee and been beat up every day as being socialist, there would be a tremendous ‘shy’ vote among moderate-to-conservative Democrats who would vote for him as their nominee, but those who may not want to tell people.”
Whether the pre-election surveys made a correct prediction is no longer the issue. Nonetheless, Kapteyn got it right that Biden’s lead would be narrower than what the polls predicted. (The final outcome will probably be tighter than Kapteyn’s forecast.) The margins in the battleground states are tiny, contrary to the forecast of most poll surveys. Take Wisconsin, Biden won by less than a percentage point even though the ABC-Washington Post’s forecast was a 17-point margin for Biden. In Pennsylvania, Biden has won by a hairline — less than a percentage point. The conventional pollsters underestimated the count for Trump. So we should listen to Kapteyn and Cahaly to get insights or lessons from their survey design and method.
The most important lesson from Kapteyn and Cahaly is about correcting the social desirability bias. But they offer other valuable insights as well: having a shortened questionnaire; reducing dependence on phone surveys, thus protecting anonymity; using other platforms like text, e-mail, and online; and increasing the sample size.
The final outcome is nevertheless clear. The Biden victory is not a landslide, but it is convincing and credible. The US election outcome is a rejection of the Trump administration that has destroyed the rule of law, reason, science, and truth; an administration that has fomented hatred and division, inequality, misogyny, and racism.
Yet, the struggle for change is far from over. That Trump’s loss was narrow, that he obtained votes much bigger than what he received when he won in 2016, that he has not conceded all forebode continuing polarization.
God bless America.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.