Why was Trump winning the 2016 election, when I know so few people who admit to voting for him?



I am a well educated Republican, of generally conservative views. Pretty much every day I see and hear people talk about how poor of a candidate Donald Trump is. But he's winning primary after primary, and is likely to win tomorrow in my home state. Every other election I've known plenty of people who are voting for the top several candidates, but for some reason unknown to me the circle of people I talk politics with don't seem to be voting for Trump. Why is that? A few possible thoughts I've had:

  1. Donald Trump supporters are less willing to talk about their desire to vote for him.
  2. Donald Trump supporters fall under a category of people with whom I have little contact, at least of the type that would be likely to talk politics.
  3. Something about my attitude makes me less likely to see his supporters than normal. I'd like to think this isn't the case, but it could be.
  4. Something else?


Posted 2016-03-01T02:55:11.723

Reputation: 3 109


  • Maybe some democrats are voting for Trump?
  • < – Stupid_Intern – 2018-03-31T17:50:33.777

    64It's simply because you and your friends are in a different demographic. – None – 2016-03-01T05:10:33.793

    68Selection bias. – Matthew Read – 2016-03-01T09:38:44.173

    7Perhaps Diebold Election Systems likes Trump more than you and your friends do? – Eric Towers – 2016-03-01T14:30:02.487

    Bollocks, can't post answer, here's a great video with some good ideas put forth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6PcQ1Be5ak

    – Иво Недев – 2016-03-02T08:47:58.240

    17I grew up in the only integrated neighborhood in a segregated city. I can remember wondering how the Republicans ever hoped to win anything, when I couldn't find a single person at my elementary school who supported them. If you can answer my question, you are well on the way to answering yours. – T.E.D. – 2016-03-02T16:17:33.350

    3I've seen reports that liberals are more likely to unfollow/unfriend conservatives that they disagree with. Perhaps this holds true inside the population that votes Republican too? Perhaps you're insulating yourself in a bubble of groupthink? – Aaron Hall – 2016-03-02T19:25:22.083

    2Possibly also because the non-Trump votes are spread out between several different candidates, and he needs a smaller percentage of the votes than usual to win. But that is just a hunch, I haven't checked. – RemcoGerlich – 2016-03-03T14:18:53.640

    1Do most of the people you know live in states that have actually held their primaries? Most states haven't. Also, are they even Republicans likely to vote in the primary? If they voted for Trump, are you the kind of person they would tell that to and expect the news to be well-received? Is there any candidate who a lot of people you know admit to voting for? – WBT – 2016-03-03T20:36:08.970

    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

    – yannis – 2016-03-04T13:58:35.417

    I think it's less about Donald and more about the huge level of voter anger over politicians preferring to pursue their own agendas rather face the very, very difficult (and real) political sacrifices that need to be accepted in order to resolve the primary challenges facing us today. – code4life – 2016-03-08T12:03:55.663

    How is it that no one has posted the famous quote "How could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him" by Pauline Kael?

    – Jon of All Trades – 2016-03-08T16:47:21.467

    I found this article interesting: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/07/donald-trump-why-americans-support

    – gerrit – 2016-03-10T23:35:51.590

    Judging by http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/08/trump_revoke_us_citizenship_from_those_with_undocu.html it's probably for the same reason most racists won't out themselves as racist.

    – Phil Lello – 2016-03-28T13:31:52.293

    1@blip I find that hard to believe. It seemed pretty certain from an objective point of view that Trump lost all of the presidential debates. I literally know 0 people who would vote for trump. – Celeritas – 2016-11-10T06:43:41.317

    11I suspect a lot comes down to the violence against those that have stated Trump support in any areas with a liberal lean. – Rig – 2016-11-11T16:59:46.177



    This is a great question, but it's really impossible to answer for certain at this point in time. Trump's current success is defying a lot of "conventional wisdom" about how primaries go. That said, the odds are good that your reason #2 is the most likely:

    "Donald Trump supporters fall under a category of people with whom I have little contact, at least of the type that would be likely to talk politics."

    This article from FiveThirtyEight, while it dates from December (well before any actual votes) still seems accurate when it says:

    The latest polls of the Republican presidential primary show a party badly divided by education: Donald Trump’s strong showings are entirely attributable to huge leads among voters without a college degree, while voters with a degree are split among several candidates.

    It then goes on to draw a parallel to last election cycle:

    A similar diploma divide was starkly evident in 2012, when college-educated Republicans almost single-handedly propelled Mitt Romney to the nomination.

    Romney’s two chief rivals, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, combined to win 765,329 more primary votes than Romney before they exited the race in April, thanks to their dominance among voters without college degrees. But those non-college-educated GOP voters split fairly evenly between Santorum and Gingrich, allowing Romney to prevail with a plurality of votes.

    Part of what Trump has going for him this election cycle appears to be motivating the non-college-educated-but-conservative segment of the population to turn out and vote in higher numbers than usual. All four Republican contests so far have had greater turnout than in 2012, including Nevada where Trump got more votes this year than there were votes cast in 2012. If Trump supporters are people who generally have not been involved in primaries or politics in the past, then you and your politically-aware circles would have very little overlap with them.

    Additionally, since that demographic is showing up specifically to vote for Trump, then the division of the more politically active segments between the rest of the field leaves an opening for a plurality candidate who can never reach a majority. One theory says that Trump has a "ceiling" of somewhere around 35% support (+/- 5%). 35% is a lot in a race where the other 65% is split 22/22/8/8/5, but it's nowhere near enough in a race where the other 65% is united. Even if it were 45%/55% after consolidation, Trump wouldn't be winning.

    All that can probably be summed up by saying:

    1. You aren't finding Trump voters in your circles because you're talking to college-educated people who were already interested in politics.
    2. Trump is winning because the voters in your demographic are splitting their votes among non-Trump candidates.


    Posted 2016-03-01T02:55:11.723

    Reputation: 21 023

    @Acccumulation Did you post that on the wrong answer? That doesn’t seem to apply to this one. – Bobson – 2020-11-01T04:44:35.670

    1The theory espoused by 538 (or is that your ad-lib?) on the 35% ceiling is easily testable as more candidates drop out. If the theory works, Trump will have no bounce in share and the other candidates will gather the majority of splillover. If it is false, Trump will rise above 35% by a meaningful amount. – user4012 – 2016-03-01T15:11:04.603

    @user4012 - Yep. That's why it's not possible to answer for sure. After today's votes and subsequent polling, there will be more data points to argue for or against the theory. – Bobson – 2016-03-01T15:39:01.143

    106It's almost as if a two-party system is insufficient to represent the range of actual voter viewpoints. – Nathan Long – 2016-03-01T15:57:10.530

    19Conventional wisdom topped Trump out at 15% then 20% then 25%, so now it is 35%. Conventional wisdom has been wrong this entire election cycle and they are wrong about Trump and who and why people are voting for him. I wouldn't give any credence to the so-called experts this election. They still can't admit to themselves that the people have finally realized their party leaders are liars who have no intention of doing what they say they are going to do. I guess the "college-educated" crowd hasn't picked up on that simple fact yet. – Dunk – 2016-03-01T21:08:27.113

    I was once told that we needed a two party system to prevent the majority from losing. That is precisely what is happening in the Republican primary. The majority of the people AREN'T voting for Trump but he is winning. – CramerTV – 2016-03-01T21:33:17.080

    2@Dunk - "Conventional wisdom" says that Trump shouldn't have ever made it as far as he did. That's been thrown out long since. Polls try to explain who is voting for him and why. If people are deliberately lying to pollsters en masse, which is a possibility, then Trump should do significantly better than the polls when it comes time to vote. Once today's votes have been counted and compared to polls over the previous week, we'll have evidence one way or the other for that theory. Conversely, if he does about as well as the polls predict, then that means they're pretty accurate. – Bobson – 2016-03-01T21:35:21.977

    A few days ago I saw an article similar to the one you linked to from FiveThirtyEight (I think it was on RealClearPolitics which doesn't seem to have a way to see previous days news) that showed the current Republican per county voting pattern as a 3-way split with Trump having the poor/uneducated, Rubio/Kasich splitting the Afluent/Educated, and Cruz/Carson splitting the Evangelicals. – Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight – 2016-03-02T19:05:22.440

    @NathanLong You show me enough choices to represent the range of voter viewpoints and I'll show you a country crippled by its inability to lead convincingly. Just try an imagine a list of 30 candidates being tallied after the votes. "Our new POTUS is Bob Smith; who won with an astonishing 8% majority vote! That's .5% more than the runner-up!" – MonkeyZeus – 2016-03-03T15:16:26.193

    8@MonkeyZeus That's only if you use plurality voting, aka "first past the post." There are other systems that allow for majority voting. They generally involve having people either vote multiple times, or use some preference based system. My favorite is "instant runoff," which uses preference-based voting to simulate a sort of "kick off the island" approach. You start with, say, 5 candidates, and the fifth place gets kicked off, and anyone who voted for them gets their second choice. This is repeated until you get a majority. – trlkly – 2016-03-03T18:24:32.323

    @trlkly So in order to execute this effectively, voters should just list their choices in preferential order from 1 to 5 and allow a computer to compute the "island kick-off". If a voter sincerely favors just one candidate then they can list just that one candidate so that they are not forced to essentially pick the "lesser evil" of the remaining 4 candidates? – MonkeyZeus – 2016-03-03T18:47:15.460


    @MonkeyZeus my least favorite feature of our system is having to vote for a mediocre candidate because I think my preferred one can't win. Think Perot on the conservative side, Nader on the progressive side, and every independent candidate ever. It sounds like http://instantrunoff.com would give us representation that much better reflects what people want, and I think it would make a many-party system more feasible.

    – Nathan Long – 2016-03-03T19:04:13.467


    @NathanLong - I agree. See this question and this one for some previous questions on the topic. There's alternatives, though. Another method is to allocate elected officials proportionally over a broader segment, rather than winner-take-all in individual districts. For example, a state could have voters simply vote for a party, and then allocate X% of the state's Representative seats to that party to assign, rather than one Rep per district. (This is similar to how parliamentary systems do it)

    – Bobson – 2016-03-03T20:45:40.313

    @user4012 - 538's only position on that which I have seen is that 30% is probably his floor. – T.E.D. – 2016-03-04T14:21:42.900

    2I think the education divide speaks volumes about the economic divide as well. And add to that, the sense of disenfranchisement the non-college educated person would feel when he or she keeps seeing the local economy shrivel up and die whilst the "better offs" appear to be unaffected by the war and economy. – code4life – 2016-03-08T12:06:52.337


    LA Times had an insightful article on the topic: "Polls may actually underestimate Trump's support, study finds", which contradicts the accepted answer's theory to an extent, and is much closer to your question's theory #1 (Having said that, I agree with @bobson that at this point we probably don't have enough hard data to be sure what the causality is).

    The study (by Morning Consult, a polling and media company) found that, when randomly choosing which method to use to poll individuals:

    ... confirmed that "voters are about six points more likely to support Trump when they’re taking the poll online then when they’re talking to a live interviewer,” said Dropp.

    Some significant number of Trump supporters, especially those with college educations, are "less likely to say that they support him when they’re talking to a live human” than when they are in the “anonymous environment” of an online survey, said the firm's polling director, Kyle Dropp.

    The most telling part of the experiment, however, was that not all types of people responded the same way. Among blue-collar Republicans, who have formed the core of Trump's support, the polls were about the same regardless of method. But among college-educated Republicans, a significant difference appeared, with Trump scoring 9 points better in the online poll.

    The researcher posed a plausible theory to explain the discrepancy, which neatly addresses your own conundrum:

    The most likely explanation for that education gap, Dropp and his colleagues believe, is a well-known problem known as social-desirability bias -- the tendency of people to not want to confess unpopular views to a pollster.

    Imagine your own conversation with your peer, 2 versions of it. Importantly, the "You" quotes are ones that your peer imagines you will make (after hearing all the mainstream conservative Trump-disapproval and mainstream liberal media Trump-bashing, or simply talking to another anti-Trump Republican before) - NOT necessarily what you will actually do or say.

    Imaginary You: "I'm voting for Rubio"
    Social-approval-conscious-Peer: I am voting for Trump
    You (looking as if they just admitted to liking Tila Tequila): "But Why? He's a Misogynist!"
    Peer: No he's not. He's acting like an %$$ to everyone of any gender.
    You looking at your peer with disappointment or unliking them on Facebook
    You: He's a racist! He wants to make Muslims wear a badge! He's Godwined!
    Peer: For a professed conservative, why are you so eager to believe liberal media lies that are easily disproven?
    You: looking at your peer with even more disapproval


    You: "I'm voting for Rubio"
    Peer: says anything except they voted for Trump
    You: Not disapprove of peer

    As you can see #2 is clearly a superior outcome for your peer.

    UPDATE 2016/11/09: [FiveThirtyEight][4] in their post-election analysis also noted similar effect (thought not every pollster seems to agree) in general election:

    Several pollsters rejected the idea that Trump voters were too shy to tells pollsters whom they were supporting. But James Lee of Susquehanna Polling & Research Inc. said his firm combined live-interview and automated-dialer calls, and Trump did better when voters were sharing their voting intention with a recorded voice rather than a live one.

    Women who voted for Trump might have been especially reluctant to tell pollsters, said David Paleologos of Suffolk University. The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll corroborated that: “Women who said they backed Trump were particularly less likely to say they would be comfortable talking to a pollster about their vote.”


    Posted 2016-03-01T02:55:11.723

    Reputation: 84 347

    This answer seems to be saying "Your friends actually do support Trump, but they aren't willing to tell you", but doesn't just come out and say that, instead giving a long winded answer, oblique answer with extra large font. Also, this is a bit presumptuous. "contradicts the accepted answer's theory to an extent" I don't see anything that contradicts it. Presenting an additional factor isn't contradiction. – Acccumulation – 2020-11-01T04:45:39.990

    @Acccumulation - Hey, don't ruin my academic-sounding parade. But yes, the succint answer is "either you just happen - like a like majority of the people these days - be clumped with like minded people (that is accepted answer). Or, your friends aren't willing to admit to you they support Trump, for reasons best left outside the margin". As someone whose best friend dropped them like a hot potato because Bush Jr. got elected in 2000, I can totally understand the latter line of thinking. As someone who saw the research, I think it's a plausible explanation. – user4012 – 2020-11-01T18:25:39.413

    18this is the most valid answer. in our society if you publicly espouse non-mainstrean thought you risk ostrocization. I vote for trump. I tell people i'm a libertarian. – hownowbrowncow – 2016-03-01T16:42:25.503

    1I agree that this might also be a valid answer. It's not the narrative that makes the most sense to me at this point, but it is certainly feasible. – Bobson – 2016-03-01T19:01:38.850

    26@Bobson Do you remember that guy who created Javascript? Do you remember he also co-founded Mozilla? Well he was forced out of his own company that he founded because of a politically sensitive 'thought-crime'. Same thing in this situation. – hownowbrowncow – 2016-03-01T19:25:14.307

    @hownowbrowncow - I'm not saying that it doesn't occur at all. It might even be valid for this specific OP's case. I'm just saying that as far as I can tell, peer pressure is insufficient to explain why certain demographics appear to not support Trump. If there was strong-but-silent support for Trump in these demographics, then polling would be even less accurate than it is when compared to the actual votes cast. – Bobson – 2016-03-01T19:57:29.957

    @Bobson - I have witnessed the exact opposite from you. So your experience is anecdotal at best. I'll bet your experience is even regional to some extent. – Dunk – 2016-03-01T21:16:24.853

    @Dunk - I'm very confused. What experience? Both my above comments are representative of my opinion. I don't find this argument convincing. That doesn't mean it's wrong, or that the data does (or doesn't) support it, or that it it's not convincing for other people (presumably user4012 thinks it's plausible), or even that I'm drawing on any real-life experience to form my opinion (I'm not - I specifically try to avoid discussing politics IRL). I'm just not convinced, and provided one reason why. Maybe I didn't make that clear enough? – Bobson – 2016-03-01T21:29:54.243

    Social-approval-unconscious-Peer? (BTW, is it the English translation of a Russian term?) – Andrew Grimm – 2016-03-01T21:40:56.063

    1@Bobson-Your post said "but for some reason unknown to me the circle of people I talk politics with don't seem to be voting for Trump". That is the experience that I am referring to. I agree in principle with this particular answer. I absolutely do not discuss politics or religion with anyone that I know disagrees with me for one simple fact. It always ends up offending someone. Actually, that would always be the other person because I use facts and logic to support (or at least arrive at) my views. I know, that's a dirty trick. – Dunk – 2016-03-01T22:02:23.033

    1@AndrewGrimm - nope, it's me trying to construct a proper 100-part German word in English :) But I do have Russian linguistic patterns, so it's a plausible influence. – user4012 – 2016-03-02T00:14:56.113

    @Dunk - Ah! I see where the confusion is now. That was the OP - I was just quoting from the question. I'll go edit it into a proper quote block. – Bobson – 2016-03-02T08:42:14.413

    1Why this direction and not the other direction? Why can't it be that they are embarrassed to tell their peers that they will vote for Trump, but will tell the pollsters because it's anonymous? – trlkly – 2016-03-03T18:27:12.073

    2@trlkly - that's the point of the study. Internet poll feels more anonymous to people, so they are less guarded than when answering to person-on-other-end-of-phone surveys – user4012 – 2016-03-03T21:57:53.530

    4@hownowbrowncow He was forced out of an avowedly ideological foundation he founded because of action (not thoughts) that contradicted the general ideologies of the organization. It would have been much better to pick an example of someone being forced out of a non-ideological corporation instead. – Jeremy – 2016-03-03T22:19:41.793

    3@JeremyBanks - if you're referring to the "can't write a good nonbloated browser" foundation </lynx_forever>, it's not ideological. It's technical. And the main ideology of OSS software founders isn't political progressivism by any stretch of imagination, unlike FSF/GNU – user4012 – 2016-03-03T22:22:52.243

    1@user4012 Mozilla is a pro-"freedom" activist organization in many dimensions. I'm not entirely on-board, but it's been the organization's identity for a long time before the Eich drama. I wanted to emphasize the distinction between that and a for-profit company, because hownow's comment did not. – Jeremy – 2016-03-03T22:37:24.890

    @JeremyBanks = I'll consider this if you point me to any of their official positions (pre-Eich) that say anything about social views. I'm leaving aside the less relevant point that their view of "freedom" is 100% in contradiction to First Amendment and what most people used to consider "freedom" before Marxist-ish folk took over liberalism. – user4012 – 2016-03-04T16:08:40.303


    Where I am nearly everyone I know around me is planning to go for Trump. I have only one friend not in the Trump camp. It sounds like

    1. Donald Trump supporters fall under a category of people with whom I have little contact, at least of the type that would be likely to talk politics.

    applies to you.

    The Joker's line in Batman applies to D.C.: "This town needs an enema!"

    Donald Trump is perceived as the person most likely to give D.C. the enema it desperately needs.

    Those of us who deal with the Washington cess pool: 1. Know how bad things are; and 2. What is going on; and 3. How the media censors the news of what is going on.

    The public senses #1 but, because of #3, does not know #2.


    Posted 2016-03-01T02:55:11.723

    Reputation: 1 357


    Don't read too much into Trump's wins. So far, he's only won Republican primaries, which typically have a lower turnout, and more dedicated voters than the general election. But he has not been a dominating candidate. He only got 35.34% of the vote in New Hampshire, and 32.5% in South Carolina. Enough to win, obviously, but two-thirds of voters didn't vote for him, and there is no way to spin that into a positive. So why will so few people admit to voting for him? Because so few actually have.


    Posted 2016-03-01T02:55:11.723

    Reputation: 609

    4This doesn't deserve downvotes. It's a valid point. – None – 2016-03-01T18:17:37.527

    It's actually caucuses which typically have lower turnout and more dedicated voters than primaries. – Bobson – 2016-03-01T18:58:01.087

    I read somewhere (IIRC on 538) that 30% of Rep primary voters is about the number of people who believe that Moon landing was hoax staged in Hollywood. All is not lost yet. – Peter M. - stands for Monica – 2016-03-01T22:51:32.863

    1It's well-known that the primaries favor fringe candidates, while the general election favors centrists. – Mark – 2016-03-02T02:05:32.453

    6This answer doesn't stack up. A lot of Trump's support is from people who don't normally vote in primaries. – David Richerby – 2016-03-02T23:20:38.197

    @DavidRicherby And, yet, the point remains that, despite those people showing up en masse this time, he's still been only in the 30-40% range. His unfavorability ratings have remained in the 55-60% range with favorability only around a third. Despite all of the state he's 'won' with 30-40% of the votes, Trump still has less than half of the delegates assigned so far.

    – reirab – 2016-03-03T19:56:40.183

    8Now it's the day after the election, and I believe that means it's time for you to eat some crow... – jaxter – 2016-11-10T02:33:20.800

    @jaxter: Why? Whether advice is good or not is based on the information available. Election results from eight months in the future are irrelevant to judging such advice. – None – 2016-11-15T08:10:59.463

    1I didn't downvote but it's a poor answer in its logic ("only" 30%+ votes is irrelevant, it's whether that surpassed or not his polling) – user4012 – 2016-12-16T03:16:19.383


    It's entirely possible that, demographically, you aren't in an area that has a lot of Trump supporters.

    Also, socially, people often wind up, through common bonds and experiences, mixing with and conversing with people closer to their own specific experiences and preferences.

    It's probably more a matter of selection. Also, there was a strong "outsider" theme to these elections, even from the primaries. Many people who came out and voted are ones who don't necessarily do so all the time, and they might not be people who necessarily feel comfortable having those kinds of conversations or arguments. It's entirely possible that people who you assumed quietly agreed with you did not, but didn't want to have a political discussion.


    Posted 2016-03-01T02:55:11.723

    Reputation: 19 833


    To talk about point 1: It has been hypothesized that voters of the 2016 Presidential Election exhibited the "Bradley effect", making polls skewed by the social desirability bias. To quote the Wikipedia article, "Members of the public may feel under pressure to provide an answer that is deemed to be more publicly acceptable, or 'politically correct'."

    According to The Washington Post article "There may have been shy Trump supporters after all"

    One possibility is that the polls were off because people were uncomfortable openly sharing with pollsters that they planned to vote for Trump.


    The culprit is social desirability bias. To avoid “looking bad,” some people avoid answering survey questions or, even worse, outright lie. Social desirability becomes even more powerful in a negative context: The more negative messages people receive about a certain group, the more likely they are to avoid publicly associating with that group.


    By the time the 2016 campaign was in its home stretch, the media culture surrounding the Trump candidacy had become significantly more negative.

    Politico article on the hypothesized "shy Trump voter", with quotes from Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group (a pollster that gives more conservative leaning results):

    Relying on live callers for polls is especially bad in this modern era, where “social desirability bias” is in full play. People avoid awkward conversations. So when a person you don’t know calls and asks how you feel about Donald Trump—and you don’t know how they feel—you tend to give them an answer that you think will make them look at you in the best light. We’ve seen it year after year, and I think it is very much at play this year.

    I’m finding that people are very hesitant [to share their preference for Trump], because now it’s not just being called “deplorable.” It’s people getting beat up for wearing the wrong hat, people getting harassed for having a sticker on their car. People just do not want to say anything.

    We talk to lots of people in our surveys. And I hear things like, “Yeah, I’m for Trump, my neighbors are for Trump, but there’s one neighbor who just hates Trump. And when he walks his dog, he kind of wrinkles his nose by those houses, and I don’t want him to do it at my house, so I don’t put a Trump sign. I like the guy, and I don’t want him mad at me.” I hear stuff like that all the time. People are playing their cards close to their chest because there’s a stigma to being for Trump. What happens when the stigma rolls away from people who hide their vote, and they start admitting where they are? This is what I think is going to happen on Election Day.


    Posted 2016-03-01T02:55:11.723

    Reputation: 660