A few days ago, President Donald Trump tweeted, “SILENT MAJORITY!” amid the recent protests. The President may be hoping that there is a group of people who support him and his positions, yet aren’t being captured by the popular zeitgeist.
The polling, of course, suggests that Trump is in a lot of trouble. Most disapprove of his performance on race relations, and he trails former Vice President Joe Biden by high single digits in the polls.
A look at history reveals that the idea of a silent majority is really a misnomer. While majorities may not be out in the street, they aren’t silent. They make their viewpoints clear in the polling.
The phrase “silent majority” gained widespread popularity thanks to President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. Nixon was indicating that those who were protesting the Vietnam War in the streets did not represent the majority of Americans.
Yet the polling at the time indicated that Nixon was heavily supported on Vietnam. When he gave his famous speech on the silent majority in November 1969, his approval rating on the issue was averaging about 60%. Nixon was clearly correct that the majority of people were behind him – they just weren’t “silent” in the polling.
Compare Nixon’s situation with Trump’s. Trump’s approval rating on race relations in a CBS News poll out this week was 33%, or about half of what Nixon’s was on the issue that sparked the protests. A nearly identical 32% told the ABC News/Ipsos KnowledgePanel poll they disapprove of Trump’s “response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.”
Trump has to be hoping that not only are his supporters not showing up to these protests but that they aren’t talking to pollsters, either.
During Nixon’s time, the polling was about as accurate as I’ve ever seen it be. You can see this by examining final Gallup polls in the two midterm and two presidential elections during the height of the Vietnam War.
1966 midterms: Final Gallup poll had Democrats winning the national House vote by 5 points. They won it by 3 points.
1968 president: Final Gallup poll had Nixon ahead by 1 point nationally. His national margin ended up being 1 point.
1970 midterms: Final Gallup poll had Democrats up by 6 points in the House. They took it by 9 points.
1972 president: Final Gallup poll put Nixon up 24 points. He crushed Democrat George McGovern by 23 points.
Over those four elections, the average polling error was just 1.5 points. Just as importantly, the polling did not, on average, underestimate the side that had the supposed silent majority.
Indeed, there’s nothing that has happened during the Trump era to indicate that the national polling showing him to be unpopular or behind Biden is wrong. The national polling in 2016 had Trump losing the popular vote by 3 to 4 points. He lost it by 2 points. The national generic congressional ballot had Democrats ahead by nearly 9 points heading into the 2018 midterm. They won it by nearly 9 points.
Trump really is this unpopular, and he really is this disliked when it comes to how people believe he is handling race relations. He’s no Nixon.