Most Americans don't trust the media -- but should they trust the media's polls? The only firm who got the 2016 election right says no. Trafalgar's Robert Cahaly has made the bold claim that Donald Trump is ahead, and after his stellar forecast four years ago, only a skeptic would doubt him. "They call me a polling industry disrupter," he said in a lengthy sit-down with National Review. And with his 92 percent accuracy rate, he could be on the verge of stunning America again.
Cahaly hasn't always been satisfied with his numbers. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, he decided to build his business better. He took the time to get to know people, read between the lines, and consider factors that other survey houses didn't. "I reject a lot of the sacred cows," Cahaly said with a bit of pride -- things like long questionnaires, small sample sizes, live calls, and the system of weighting certain parties. As far as he's concerned, the national pollsters have been "miss[ing] people in the middle." "I've got to get past what you want to say in public and get to what you really feel," Cahaly says. "Because what's in your heart is going to be what's on that ballot."
So, Trafalgar started mixing things up -- integrating texting, emails, and digital technology. They decided that the way to get the most accurate numbers was to make people feel anonymous and safe. People "don't want to be judged by somebody on the phone that they don't know. So [they] tend to air on the side of giving the most politically correct answer." That "hidden vote," Cahaly agrees, the "silent majority" -- it exists. And it can create, he's noticed, as much as a five-point swing.
For that and other reasons, he doesn't put much stock in the national polls. "First, because the race for the presidency is won state by state, not on the basis of the national vote. Second, because all the methodological difficulties involved in getting a balanced, representative sample in a state poll of 1,000 people are magnified in a national survey. 'It's easily skewable at that point,' he [told NRO.] 'You start making assumptions.'" Also, he points out, conservatives don't like to participate in polls. "In general, we see a five-to-one refusal rate among conservatives." So if people aren't working hard to get a "fair representation" of them, then their results will be off.
So how does he see 2020 shaping up? For starters, Cahaly doesn't buy the idea that the pandemic is fueling people's vote. "We [have] literally not seen COVID in the top when people start getting anonymous and honest. It's economy, economy, economy, economy." Most Americans, he argues, want to do what they can to keep their families safe, but they've also decided, "We're not going to stay home and live in fear. We're going to live life." In Cahaly's opinion, people see the virus as "overblown." They're worried about their bottom line. "They're worried about, 'How am I going to feed that family?'"
It's like chocolate, he said. "Even at this point in a pandemic, people are still saying that, in many ways, this economy was chocolate for people who never tasted chocolate. And they really liked it, and then all of a sudden this virus came, and they can't have the chocolate anymore and they want a way to get back to that chocolate, and they see Trump as the [way]." Fifty-six percent of people, Cahaly pointed out, say they're better off that they were four years ago. "That is a real number. That is a real measure that transcends time. There's never been a higher number of people say they're better off than they were four years ago."
That doesn't mean the president has an easy road in November. Far from it. He still has to win a string of enormously tight races in battleground states like North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and either Michigan or Pennsylvania -- in addition to Iowa or Ohio. Interestingly, Cahaly says he's talked to the people in Florida, and they're petrified of the socialist agenda behind the Democratic ticket. "If you spend some time talking with folks down and down there [you'll see just how] angry they are about socialism and how scared they are about what they have [with] the Democrat Party."
The worst case scenario for Trump is a record-setting youth vote and "a real turnout on the issue of health care," which he sees as the Republicans' Achilles heel. Otherwise, this is a "motivation race," not a "persuasion race" with just a over one percent legitimately undecided in the states that matter. "I've never really bought into the whole undecided thing as a whole," Cahaly says. And this year, he half-jokes, "Nobody is saying, 'What's the difference in these two?'"
Tony Perkins's Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC Action senior writers.