Have Conservatives Gone Dark?

Going dark in a general sense means to cease communications or activities.  This tactic can be applied to espionage, military operations, guerrilla warfare, and large segments of any population if a situation warrants it.  Judging from the results of recent political polls, one could argue that a significant percentage of conservative voters and perhaps even moderates have gone dark.

If you were surprised by a July 19 ABC News/Washington Post poll that had Joe Biden up over Donald Trump by 15 points nationally, a CBS News/YouGov poll from July 26 that had Biden up by 10 points, or the most recent Economist/YouGov poll that has Biden up by 9 points, chances are you were not alone.  Conservative analysts would consider these polls less than accurate or deliberately juiced in some way to get a desired result.  However, if you look at the Real Clear Politics 2020 list of national presidential polls, the last time Trump polled ahead of Biden was February 2020.  Almost all national polls have had Biden ahead before and since.

Does this mean the constant daily ad hominem attacks on President Trump by the mainstream media and Democrat politicians over the past four years has turned voters against him, or is it producing something called social desirability bias, also known as the shy Tory effect in Britain?  This is the concept that people do not like to be associated with unpopular ideas, thus making them reluctant to admit to pollsters that they support the president.

Social desirability bias may have been a factor in most polls getting it wrong in 2016.  If you take an average of the RCP 2016 list of presidential polls from the Guardian poll in early June through the ABC News Clinton +4 poll just before the 2016 Republican Convention in mid-July, you will see that Hillary had an average lead of about 4.7 points.  The actual vote was only 2.1% in her favor, meaning the average poll over this time period was wrong by roughly 2.5 percentage points.  It is possible that many of the 2.5 percent were shy Trump voters.  

If you look at the 2020 polls over roughly the same time period, Biden is ahead by an average of 9.8 points.  Why the big difference?  Is Trump really that unpopular?

It appears that a break point may have occurred after the George Floyd incident on May 25.  If you look at the 2020 polls from the beginning of May through May 26, Biden's lead averages about 5.2 points, not very different from Hillary in 2016.  After May 26, Biden's lead almost doubled.

Note this Gallup poll from July 16, 2020.  Between May 2020, when the George Floyd incident occurred, and June of 2020, Americans identifying as Republicans declined by five percentage points, from 44% to 39%, just about the same amount that Biden's lead increased.  Was this change just temporary voter empathy with the protesters, or did five percent of Republicans permanently switch over to the Democrats?  My guess is that most of them decided that it was not a good time to admit being Republican, either virtue signaling support for Black Lives Matter or going dark by lying to the pollsters.

This raises another question.  If the party identification switch was temporary, why have Biden's poll numbers remained higher than they were before the Floyd incident?  Is some other factor at work?

The reaction of many to George Floyd's death was to march in protest against the use of excessive force by the police.  Unfortunately, the protests quickly became violent, ushering in the worst two and a half months of rioting and destruction seen since the Vietnam War protests or following the Martin Luther King assassination in the 1960s.  There is real hate and vindictiveness out there now, combined with real threats to property and personal safety.  

The most compelling case that conservatives have gone dark is a recent Cato Institute poll, which found that 62% of Americans overall are afraid to express their political views.  This includes 77% of conservatives but an average of 47% of liberals and strong liberals.  This is an amazing statistic.  Less than half of liberals are afraid to express their political views, while over three quarters of conservatives fear doing so.

It is not difficult to understand why conservatives feel this way.  They watch night after night as a slow-motion liberal version of Kristallnacht rolls on in many American cities.  Police are attacked, businesses are looted and burned, statues are pulled down, and innocent bystanders or motorists in their cars are harassed or worse.  They know that wearing a MAGA hat or shirt in the wrong neighborhood may get them attacked and beaten.  They know that a Trump yard sign or bumper sticker may get their house or vehicle vandalized.  They know that if they say or post the wrong thing on social media, they may be tarred as a racist, misogynist, homophobe, xenophobe, etc., and could possibly lose their job or career. 

The commonsense reaction to these kinds of threats is to either fight back or go dark.  Fighting back in almost any way is difficult when Democrat mayors and governors are siding with the mobs or restricting the police.  Going dark by not advertising your support for Trump, not participating in opinion polls, or by altering your poll answers becomes the safest alternative.

There is another possibility related to the phenomenon of going dark.  With fewer pro-Trump conservatives willing to participate in the polls, pollsters may be sampling a fractionally larger number of anti-Trump moderates and conservatives.  In an article from June 17, the Washington Post may have noticed this trend but misinterpreted it, suggesting that Republican energy was slipping.  

Does this mean the left has intimidated conservative voters to the point where they have given up?  Unlikely.

The best analogy I can think of is this.  Imagine that it is 1917, during the First World War, and you are a soldier fighting in the trenches in France.  To venture into no man's land — the space between the armies — or to pop your head up above the top of the trench for a look-see, can have very bad consequences.  Therefore, the safest place to be while the bullets are flying is in your trench with your head down.

Today, the sniping is verbal, but the Molotov cocktails are real.  So if you are trying to keep your head down, figuratively speaking or literally, like those World War I soldiers, remember that you are not alone.  The numbers suggest a whole army of moderates and conservatives in the trenches with you, and November 3 is not that far away.

Image: Tom Arthur via Wikimedia Commons.

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