If President Trump reenacts an electoral college victory on Tuesday, at least one pollster – and maybe only one – will be able to say, “I told you.”
That person is Robert Cahaly, whose Trafalgar Group has released a steady stream of battlefield state polls this year showing the president highly competitive against Joseph R. Biden Jr., and often leading, in states where most other pollsters showed a stable Biden. drive.
Trafalgar does not disclose its methods and is considered far too obscure by other pollsters to be taken seriously. Above all, they dismiss it as an outlier. But for Mr. Cahaly, “I told you” is already a calling card.
In 2016, its first public polling, Trafalgar was the company whose state inquiries most effectively predicted Mr. Trump’s thwarted victory. A seasoned Republican strategist, Mr. Cahaly even called out the exact number of Electoral College votes Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton would receive – 306 to 227 – although his prediction of which states would get them there was slightly disappointing.
So, with liberal concerns about whether to trust the polls, the gregarious Mr Cahaly wearing a goatee and bow tie has been in demand lately. In addition to frequent appearances on Fox News, Mr Cahaly was on CNN last week, telling Michael Smerconish why he thought the president would come away with an easy victory – and defending himself against a battery of criticism Mr Smerconish called , one by one, peers of Mr. Cahaly.
Amid pre-election media coverage seeking out his theory of the case – it generated more than 1.5 million clicks on the Trafalgar site on Monday, he said – the big question appears to be: Is it possible to believe a guy whose polls give Mr. Trump just enough support for a narrow lead in most swing states, and who refuses to reveal a lot about how he gets his data?
In his latest polls this election season, Mr. Cahaly found Mr. Trump with two to three point advantages in North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan and Florida, and wider leads elsewhere. That puts him far off the line with nearly all of the major pollsters, whose polls in those states typically show Mr. Biden with the advantage. As different as things are this year, it’s hard to miss the echo of 2016, when Trafalgar occupied an equally lonely position on the eve of November 8.
Above all, Mr. Cahaly’s approach centers on the belief that everyone is lying, but especially the conservatives. This was largely refuted by the social sciences, but it did not soften his conviction. To hear him explain it, traditional pollsters (he calls them “dinosaurs”) are paralyzed by “Social Desirability Bias”: Respondents’ tendency to say what they think an interviewer wants to hear, and not what they actually believe. In Mr. Trump’s America, he says, this problem has worsened.
“I just think people aren’t who they say they are, ever,” Mr. Cahaly said in a recent phone interview from Atlanta, where he lives. “We cannot eliminate the social desirability bias, we can only minimize it.”
Four years ago he approached this question by asking people both who they would support the presidency and who neighbors would support. This year, he says, he is using other means to achieve the same result.
But he doesn’t say what they are. Mr. Cahaly publishes virtually no real explanation of his survey methodology; The methods page on Trafalgar’s website contains what reads as a vague advertisement of its services and explains that its polls actively confront social desirability biases, without giving details of how. He says he uses a mixture of text messages, emails and phone calls – some automated and others by live callers – to achieve an accurate representation of the electorate.
Conventional pollsters, who follow long-proven and widely effective methods of gleaning a representative sample, don’t buy it. Furthermore, if there had ever been such a thing as a “shy Trump supporter” – someone who hesitates to admit that he or she is considering voting for the president – this species has been virtually extinct during the presidency. boisterous and sturdy Trump rally, said Daniel Cox, a polling and public opinion expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“People don’t seem embarrassed to support Mr. Trump,” Cox said. Over the past four years, studies seeking to quantify a so-called “shy Trump” effect in surveys have generally found little evidence to support it.
Late last month, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver got his hands on the cross tabs of a Trafalgar Michigan poll that was still ongoing. He revealed that more than a quarter of Democrats and Republicans expected to vote for the other party’s candidate, so far off the line with almost every other poll that Mr. Silver called the numbers “just crazy ”.
Mr. Cahaly, of course, is of no use to expert skepticism. He doesn’t seem to care whether he follows the best practices of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, the benchmark business organization, any more than Mr. Trump says he cares if the allies of the United States of NATO respect it.
Among his fellow pollsters, the main sticking point is Mr. Cahaly’s lack of transparency about his methods.
Josh Pasek, professor of communications, data and political science at the University of Michigan, said that without an idea of the methods the company uses to reach survey respondents, it is not possible to determine trust the numbers.
“It is extremely inappropriate not to tell me, not only what modes you use to draw your sample, but how you did it precisely,” he said. His rule of thumb: “If someone isn’t transparent, you can usually assume they’re crap.”
There is something unmistakably alluring about the story of a Southern pollster who broke the standards and entered 2016 with a fresh take on it and proved every department store wrong. Born in Georgia and raised in North South Carolina by a banker and teacher, Mr. Cahaly developed an obsession with politics as a child and majored in this field at the University of South Carolina. He soon came under the wing of pollster Rod Shealy, a sidekick of Republican strategist Lee Atwater, and ended up starting his own business.
Named after a battle in the Napoleonic Wars when the British navy turned back French and Spanish ships on the high seas, Trafalgar, which he has managed on his own, has been conducting investigations on behalf of clients since 2006.
Most of Trafalgar’s polls are done for Conservative and Republican clients, although – in another snub of traditional norms – it has not reliably revealed when polls are paid for by partisan interests.
In 2010, Mr. Cahaly was arrested and brought to justice for breaking a law prohibiting the use of automatic calls – called robocalls – to conduct surveys. The charges against him were ultimately dropped, and he subsequently successfully sued a state law enforcement agency, resulting in the South Carolina robotic call ban being declared. unconstitutional.
Mr Cahaly said he was conducting legitimate polls, aimed at genuinely understanding voters’ opinions – and getting what he called “dead end” results. During the 2016 Republican primaries, it was early to spot a surge of enthusiasm from many working-class voters who had long felt estranged from politics and had contributed to Mr. Trump’s rise.
“I kept getting these stories from people who showed up to vote and didn’t know how to use the voting machines, they hadn’t voted for so long,” said Mr. Cahaly. So he started researching who these people might be, and used the data available online to create a list of around 50 lifestyle characteristics – including, say, if they had a fishing license – to identify them. types of uninvolved voters who were turning in droves. He used this data to make sure he was reaching the right types of respondents when surveying the voter register. before the general election.
In 2018, Mr Cahaly again racked up a successful track record polling the Senate and Governors races, including polls that correctly predicted Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott’s victories in Florida.
This year, he continued to see strong support for Trump among those voters, and he believes other pollsters are again underestimating their importance. Among Mr. Cahaly’s theories, it takes five times as many calls to get a Conservative voter to complete a poll than it takes to get a Liberal voter. Others in the field say they can find no evidence to support this in their own work.
But Mr Cahaly insists it is presumptuous for pollsters to assume they are drawing a representative sample of voters simply because they adhere to the scientific method. He talks about the country’s political divide and Americans’ reluctance to communicate with each other through the breach of suspicion. In a sense, he has positioned himself as a bard of Trumpism, giving voice to a silent majority – or at least a majority in the Electoral College – who know the elites view his views as deplorable and therefore do not express them freely. anybody.
“Lee Atwater explained to everyone around me that you have to get out of politicians’ heads and into Joe Six-Pack’s heads,” Mr. Cahaly said. “What do average people think? And to do this, I like to talk to ordinary people. I like to follow survey calls and chat with people for 30 minutes. “
Mr. Cahaly does not feel the need to reveal his techniques, despite the almost universal doubt about his work on the part of his peers. “I’ve given enough; I’m not giving away anything, ”he said, arguing that it was a mistake to even inform the public about his“ neighbor’s question, ”which other companies have since adopted in their own surveys.
“I think we’ve developed something very different from what other people do, and I’m really not interested in telling people how we do it,” he said. “Just judge us if we’re doing it right.”