Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group polling firm, which gained prominence after accurately predicting former President Donald Trump’s 2016 surge, says judging the political landscape ahead of the midterms has just become harder.
President Biden’s campaign rhetoric characterizing Republicans as a threat to democracy in thrall to “semi-fascism” is driving even moderate members of the party into the shadows unwilling to broadcast their views in public and in private, he said
Getting an accurate read on Republican voters, especially those reticent to voice their support for Mr. Trump, has been a consistent challenge dating back to the 2016 election.
But, Mr. Cahaly told The Washington Times, public perception of just how far Democrats and government institutions such as the FBI will go to smear their political opponents in the wake of Mr. Biden’s escalating campaign rhetoric has worsened the challenge.
“If you think, for example, being called a deplorable and being worried about being canceled make you less likely to tell people what side you’re on, imagine what suggesting that because you have a Republican sticker on your car or a sign in your yard that now you’re a threat to national security,” he said.
“People don’t want to self-select for the next FBI raid,” Mr. Cahaly said.
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“It’s just sending Republican support underground and it’s making it harder for both sides to measure,” he said.
Mr. Cahaly said that while, in his view, Republicans’ perception of Mr. Biden’s rhetoric is often overblown by social media, the political tensions stemming from the president’s recent remarks have begun to boil over.
Among other things, Mr. Cahaly and other political analysts warn, this rhetoric distorts polls in favor of Democrats, as Republicans and Republican-leaning voters refuse to participate or be candid.
Mr. Biden kicked off the Democrats’ fall campaign push by labeling Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” political agenda as “semi-fascism” during a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
Days later, during a prime-time address before the dramatically lit Independence Hall in Philadelphia, flanked by gun-toting Marines, Mr. Biden framed the midterm elections this year as an existential battle for “the soul of America.”
He accused “MAGA Republicans” in the speech of refusing to recognize free and fair elections, talking about violence in response to political policies they don’t like, and working to thwart “the will of the people.”
“Democracy cannot survive” under their belief system, he said.
The president and his spokespeople later insisted that he wasn’t painting Republicans with a broad brush, but rather only Mr. Trump’s followers, who he said “dominated” and “intimidated” mainstream Republicans.
Still, in a nationwide survey by the Trafalgar Group and Convention of States Action in the days after Mr. Biden’s speech in Philadelphia, 56.8% of respondents said the speech was a “dangerous escalation in rhetoric designed to incite conflict among Americans.”
Just 35% of those polled viewed the rhetoric as “acceptable campaign messaging” in an election year.
Among third-party and independent voters, 62.4% viewed the speech as dangerous, compared with 31.2% who said it was acceptable campaign rhetoric.
Mr. Cahaly said that coupled with the ramped political rhetoric, Republican voters’ fears are being stoked by what is being perceived as a weaponization of federal law enforcement against conservatives as the FBI cracks down on efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
“I’ve actually heard some fear,” he said of conversations he has had with Republican voters during polling calls.
“People have watched some stuff on cable that has made them very uncomfortable about people being shaken down and the FBI coming to people’s houses,” he said.
On Monday, Fox News host Tucker Carlson featured a story about Lisa Gallagher, a New Jersey woman who displays a pro-Trump sign on her lawn, being questioned by the FBI after it received an anonymous tip falsely accusing her of being at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.
“I was terrified,” she told Mr. Carlson on his show. “I called my husband, I was crying, my knees were shaking. And even though I knew I had done nothing wrong, after seeing Joe Biden’s speech the night before, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is political.’”
Ms. Gallagher said the FBI agents left her home after she allowed them to look at her phone and her calendar to prove that she was not at the Capitol.
Mr. Cahaly said that while “I take everything that’s on cable news with a grain of salt … that story freaked people out.”
“What this does is drives up the number of people who are either shy about who they’re supporting when they talk to a pollster or the number who refuse to even take a poll,” Mr. Cahaly said.
Mr. Cahaly is not alone in warning that polls leading up to the midterms may be showing a distorted political picture.
New York Times chief political analyst Nate Cohn noted this week that midterm polling is showing similar trends to 2016 and 2020.
“That warning sign is flashing again: Democratic Senate candidates are outrunning expectations in the same places where the polls overestimated Mr. Biden in 2020 and [Democratic presidential nominee Hillary] Clinton in 2016,” Mr. Cohn said.
In Wisconsin, for example, Democratic Senate hopeful Mandela Barnes is beating Republican incumbent Ron Johnson by up to 7 percentage points in some polls.
But Mr. Biden won the state by just 0.63 percentage points in 2020 after ABC and The Washington Post predicted a 17 percentage point win.
“On paper, the Republican senator Ron Johnson ought to be favored to win re-election,” Mr. Cohn writes. “The FiveThirtyEight fundamentals index, for instance, makes him a two-point favorite. Instead, the polls have exceeded the wildest expectations of Democrats.”
The Democrat “mirage” that may be showing up again in 2022, he said, could be the “artifact of persistent and unaddressed biases in survey research.”
The ABC/Post 2020 Wisconsin poll showing Mr. Biden winning by 17 points, for example, underestimated the share of Republicans in the electorate by 11 percentage points.
Mr. Cohn does not contend outright that Mr. Biden’s smears against Republicans are responsible for exacerbating the polling bias.
But he does note that “some pollsters have said they’re seeing the familiar signs of nonresponse bias — when people who don’t respond to a poll are meaningfully different from those who participate — creeping back into their surveys.”
Despite Republicans not showing up in pre-election polling, Mr. Cahaly said he still expects Republicans to turn out to vote — and perhaps even more so as they perceive the political stakes rising.
He said that while the speech in Philadelphia was meant to rally the Democratic base it was “much more motivational for Republicans than it was Democrats.”
“This is not a persuasion election, it’s a motivation election,” he said. “Whoever does a better job of getting close to their 2020 turnout is going to win.”