For pollster Robert Cahaly, producing illuminating surveys and with accurate results is more important than party politics. Cahaly, who founded the opinion polling firm Trafalgar Group, received an A-minus grade from FiveThirtyEight’s Pollster Rankings and accurately predicted former President Trump’s victory in 2016 and the results of the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections in 2021.
“I’m a Republican, but if you think I’m going to make a poll look positive for somebody because of what party I’m in, you don’t know me very well,” Cahaly told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on this week’s episode of “The Takeout” podcast. “I like being right more than anything.”
Cahaly conducts business development polls that are free, his company is paid by political action committees and campaigns for polling.
“One of the pieces of advice I always give candidates is like, ‘Well, should I do a poll?’ And I’m like, ‘Would it change what you do? Because it is not going to affect your behavior, then don’t waste your money.'” Cahaly said. “‘Like, do you really want to know?’ And the fact is, you know, most candidates are shocked. ‘Oh my God, there’s no way my name recognition is that low.’ And I’m like, ‘You thought it was that high?'”
Cahaly observed that it’s not unusual for people with power to have a more inflated sense of self than ordinary people.
“Average people aren’t really sure of the difference when a state senator, a U.S. senator- people that vote, Cahaly said. “People have real lives. They have stuff to do.”
The Trafalgar Group does not use conventional polling methods like phone calls, longer surveys, and questions that ask for detailed personal information, instead favoring more anonymous, shorter surveys that are accessible to the public. Cahaly said his aim is for Trafalgar Group surveys is that they take three minutes or less to complete.
“We really like different collection methods like we use tax, we use emails, online platforms so we can mix all of those with live calls and get a really good sense. The more people feel the poll was anonymous, the more honest they’re going to be. And so we’re going to do a bigger survey,” Cahaly said, adding that with traditional methods, pollsters are forced to rely on enthusiastic partisans, or sometimes those who are simply bored, to answer their questions. This, he thinks, creates skewed poll results.
Cahaly’s firm adjusts polls for social desirability biases, or the tendency for voters to answer questions to satisfy the survey company or the public’s opinions. The firm often asks participants to talk about how their neighbors feel about a certain issue or candidate, instead of themselves.
“You know, our premise is people lie, people lie to their doctor, they lie to their lawyer, they lie to their priest and all of a sudden they become Honest Abe when they take a poll? No, that’s not reality,” Cahaly joked.
Pointing to polls ahead of the 2016 presidential election that showed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the lead, Cahaly said there were elements of that election that needed to be factored into polling models to create accurate results.
“We lived in a world where everybody knew somebody who was for Trump, who didn’t want to have a sign in their yard,” Cahaly said. “There were people — I had friends that were actually working for him who didn’t put a sticker on their car because of where they parked at night. So, that was not a normal thing.
That was not something that would have happened with Romney or Bush or McCain.”
On the 2022 midterm elections, Cahaly said that while initial speculation is that Republicans could gain seats in the House and Senate, “we are a political lifetime away from midterms.”
“I know everything, you know, looks like just a Republican landslide, but a lot of things can happen,” Cahaly said. “A lot of things affect politics. I mean, you know, when Trump was sitting there in November of 2019, nobody knew what COVID was… that radically affected his election.”
The Trafalgar Group’s polling methods: “You know, our premise is people lie, people lie to their doctor, they lie to their lawyer, they lie to their priest and all of a sudden they become Honest Abe when they take a poll? No, that’s not reality. And so, you know, I love that ‘we’re going to ask people what their income is, education level,.’ What we found is they’re always going to up it a little bit. Whatever it is, they’re going to tell you it’s better than it is.”
Incorporating the “shy Trump voter” into polling models: “You have to pay attention. I think scientific, all these numbers… this is a good way to do things, but you have to use good sense and good judgment, too. You can’t just say, ‘Well, this is the model on this, the way you have to do it.’ I mean, we lived in a world where everybody knew somebody who was for Trump, who didn’t want to have a sign in their yard. There were people- I had friends that were actually working for him who didn’t put a sticker on their car because of where they parked at night. So that was not a normal thing. That was not something that would have happened with Romney or Bush or McCain. It was different… You have to be willing to recognize that the world is changing and people’s attitudes change… We really like different collection methods like we use tax, we use emails, online platforms so we can mix all of those with live calls and get a really good sense. The more people feel the poll was anonymous, the more honest they’re going to be. And so we’re going to do a bigger survey.”
What Trump voters in 2020 think about election security: “I believe they think it’s everything, the entire spectrum. Everyone has a different perspective. That whole range exists from people who think it was complete, there was no problems, to you know, that it was, I mean, some of the craziest conspiracy you’ve ever heard… But what we have found is there’s agreement and it is almost bipartisan is that if all the states had gotten their stuff together in the way, like a Texas and Florida did, and they had announced all the election votes on election night and announced Biden would win, there would be a different opinion.”
Republicans and Democrats and the 2022 midterm elections: “I think that when people get this frustrated with the government, a throw the bums out mentality can take place and just vote against all incumbents can take place. And so people are frustrated. You know, you see these generic ballots where they’re willing to give the Republicans another chance and they’re not confident in the Democrats because they don’t really understand what’s going on. And when you look at what their priorities are, you know, on the national issues, the Democrats seem to spend a great deal of time on climate change and social issues, you know, social reformer, equality, equity issues. And they’re just not in the top five [of issues for voters]. Neither one of those is in the top five. And so they’re definitely not where the voting electorate is. And when people get really frustrated, you know, they’re going to act out.”
Midterms: “We are a political lifetime away from midterms. I know everybody wants to tell you how it’s over already…. I know everything you know looks like just a Republican landslide, but a lot of things can happen. A lot of things affect politics. I mean, you know, when Trump was sitting there in November of 2019, nobody knew what COVID was, I mean that radically affected his election. So I mean, these things can happen. I mean, there are international conflicts. I mean, you know, God forbid, some kind of terrorism, and there’s so many things that can completely derail what people expect to happen in politics.”
Executive producer: Arden Farhi
Producers: Jamie Benson, Jacob Rosen, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson