In The Final Stretch, Will Stealth Voters Make A Difference?

When Honesty and Social Desirability Collide

You are enjoying lighthearted conversation at a weekend BBQ when inevitably, with Election Day looming, the topic turns to politics. Tempers suddenly flare as your previously jovial conversation partners become red-faced as they passionately denounce the candidate you are supporting. Do you speak up in defense of your candidate—no doubt bringing the camaraderie to a hard stop like a needle scratching to a halt on a record? Or do you remain silent?

Research indicates that most people will choose the latter. Motivated to maintain social desirability, many voters are in the closet. There they will remain, until they quietly cast their vote on Tuesday.

Following Your Expressed Views With Your Vote

Before we call the presidential race in the final weekend according to polls that have Hillary Clinton in the lead, some experts familiar with political science research caution—not so fast. Past elections have revealed the existence of “stealth” voters—frequently termed “undercover voters” in the press. These people publicly profess to be “undecided” yet plan to go to the polls and vote for an unpopular or controversial candidate—if they haven´t already.

Stealth voters are often discussed in connection with Donald Trump [1]— a candidate for whom many people boldly profess their support. But not everyone. Although the impact of secret Trump voters on the election might not be significant, it is likely that more people will vote for Trump than are fessing up publicly—due to the fact that admitting a Trump vote is in some cases, socially undesirable. [2] Some predict that so called “hidden Trump voters” will take their concealed beliefs all the way to the ballot box. [3]

Detecting Undercover Voters

Clandestine Trump voters were detected earlier in the presidential campaign, when it was determined that Trump was polling higher in online polls as opposed to those conducted over the phone—where voters engage in live interaction. [4] The discrepancy was believed to be fueled by voter concern about social desirability. [5]

Some citizens plan to vote for Trump´s policies—not his personality. Whether their decision is fueled by Trump´s stance on abortion, taxes, national security, or the appointment of Supreme Court justices, these voters claim to be undecided, but plan to vote for the Republican nominee.

Undercover Voters in Both Camps: Ready for Mrs. President?

Undercover voters might also include those who publicly profess support for Hillary Clinton but do not plan to follow their expressed views with their vote. How is it, you might ask, in our modern day and age, that anyone would balk at electing a woman to the Oval Office? Haven´t we evolved sufficiently to understand that either a man or a woman can possess the competence and fitness to be commander in chief? The answer is... not completely.

Many voters are perfectly comfortable electing Mrs. President. Convinced of the gender neutrality of the position, they are ready to put Hillary at the helm. They are even comfortable with Bill as first gentleman picking the China patterns and the curtains—as Hillary will no doubt have other things on her plate. Yet some voters, while reluctant to admit it, are still not ready for a woman in the White House.

Research surrounding the 2008 presidential election revealed the existence of social desirability bias in connection with expressed willingness to vote for a female president. [6] Accordingly, they determined public opinion polls exaggerated support for a woman running for the White House. [7]

More recent research studying experimentally generated support for Black candidates and female candidates suggests that social desirability might contaminate self-reported voting behavior, resulting in overestimating support for Black or female candidates. [8] This overestimation, however, can be reduced through affording voters the opportunity to explain the rationale underlying individual voting preferences, which lessens social desirability pressure. [9]

Other research, however, failed to find a “Wilder” or “Bradley Effect” – the difference between a voter´s expressed preferences and his or her actual vote, for female politicians. [10]

Supporting an Unpopular Candidate and Political Engagement: An Inverse Proportion

Research reveals that supporters of an unpopular candidate often keep their beliefs to themselves. One study demonstrated that people were less likely to donate money to a candidate when their donations would be publically available on the Internet.[11] This was particularly true for those surrounded by individuals who shared different political views.[12]

According to theories of social influence, people holding unique political views (which would arguably include Trump supporters within more liberal social circles) are more likely to withdraw from politics in order to avoid the social costs of being exposed. [13]

Voters are more likely to engage in political activity when surrounded by like-minded friends and family. [14] In contrast, the theory of social accountability reduces the likelihood of engaging in public political discussion for people holding opinions in conflict with community norms, or that would create interpersonal conflict. [15]

The more important question, however, is whether withdrawal from political activity extends to voting.

Community Sentiment: Conformity or Controversy

Some communities consist of sterile condominium and apartment buildings where residential restrictions prohibit political displays of any kind. Other communities are thriving visual marketplaces of ideas, neighborhoods awash with political yard signs and bumper stickers, expressing support for candidates of choice. As might be expected, willingness to wear your vote on your sleeve might be dictated by where you live.

Research reveals that individuals with partisan preferences are more likely to vote when they are part of a like-minded community, compared with a community that is politically heterogeneous. [16] This is because within politically homogeneous areas, individuals enjoy the positive reinforcement they receive from friends and neighbors who hold the same political views that they do. [17]

One study focusing on the impact of neighborhood on voting behavior found that Republicans living in “enemy territory” were less likely to vote. [18]

The bottom line is that even in the final weekend of this election cycle, polling is only as reliable as the transparency of the intentions expressed by voters. True intentions will be revealed on Tuesday.


[6] Matthew J. Streb, Barbara Burrell, Brian Frederick, and Michael A. Genovese, “Social Desirability Effects And Support For A Female American President,” Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 72, No. 1 (2008): 76–89.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Yanna Krupnikov, Spencer Piston, and Nichole M. Bauer,” Saving Face: Identifying Voter Responses to Black Candidates and Female Candidates,” Political Psychology, Vol. 37, No. 2, (2016): 253-273; doi: 10.1111/pops.12261.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Daniel J. Hopkins, “No More Wilder Effect, Never a Whitman Effect: When and Why Polls Mislead about Black and Female Candidates,” The Journal of Politics Vol. 71, No. 3 (2009): 769–781; doi:10.1017/S0022381609090707.

[11] Raymond J. La Raja, “Political Participation and Civic Courage: The Negative

Effect of Transparency on Making Small Campaign Contributions,” Political Behavior Vo. 36 (2014):753–776, DOI 10.1007/s11109-013-9259-8.

[12] Ibid.

[13] La Raja, “Political Participation and Civic Courage,” 754.

[14] La Raja, “Political Participation and Civic Courage,” 757.

[15] La Raja, “Political Participation and Civic Courage,” 757.

[16] La Raja, “Political Participation and Civic Courage,” 758.

[17] La Raja, “Political Participation and Civic Courage,” 758.

[18] James G. Gimpel, Joshua J. Dyck, and Daron R. Shaw, “Registrants, Voters, And Turnout Variability Across Neighborhoods,” Political Behavior, Vol. 26, No. 4, (2004): 343-375. (analysis of data from the 2000 Presidential election)