Imagine, if you can, that there’s a presidential election going on in your country. And not just any election, but a highly emotionally charged one, with passions running high on both sides, to the point that even friendships and family ties are strained. And then imagine that someone asks you whom you support. Would you tell the truth? Are you sure?
Now, imagine you’re Russian. (Bear with me. It’s not as much of a stretch as you might think.)
Way back in 2012, Vladimir Putin won an election that was in some ways similar to the one Americans are inflicting on themselves (and the rest of the TV-watching world) right now. Coming on the heels of a hotly contested parliamentary election, which sparked the largest protests Russia had seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin’s candidacy was extremely divisive: many of his supporters saw him as nothing less than the savior of the Russian nation, while his detractors saw him as a very direct threat to their freedom and prosperity.
Of course, the analogy only goes so far: Putin controlled all of the television stations and the major political parties, had no real opposition, and won in a landslide. And yet when the regular Russian Election Survey, run by political scientists Tim Colton and Henry Hale, asked a sample of voters how they had voted, 5.8 percent of them said they couldn’t or wouldn’t answer the question.
Russia, of course, was an authoritarian country in 2008, too, when Dmitry Medvedev was elected president (and Putin briefly ran the show as Prime Minister), and when the Russian Election Survey was run that year, a similar number (6.4 percent) couldn’t or wouldn’t answer the question. But a closer look at the data show an important shift. When asked about how they thought their household and the Russian economy as a whole had fared under Putin’s reign, these ‘silent’ respondents in 2008 gave answers that were pretty much the same as the opinion of society as a whole, the vast majority of which supported the Kremlin. But in 2012, Russians who refused to reveal their voting decisions were indistinguishable in their opinions from opposition voters. (See the figure below for an illustration. Columns show the mean response on a three-point scale for each category of respondent; a response of 1 is negative, 2 is neutral and 3 is positive.)
Not telling the whole truth to pollsters or other social interlocutors – something political scientists diplomatically refer to as ‘preference falsification’ – has emerged in the last couple of decades as an important (if sometimes disputed) explanation for why politics sometimes goes haywire. In an argument most clearly put forward by Timur Kuran, people often hide their real preferences because they’re worried about the consequences of being forthright.
In an authoritarian environment, the calculation is fairly straightforward: you see that the vast majority of your compatriots support the dictator, and you might think twice about letting people know that you think differently. But as soon as you see that the dictator’s fortunes are faltering, there is an equally powerful incentive to switch sides (even if you don’t really like the challenger). As a result, when revolutions happen, they’re often sudden and unexpected.
There’s reason to believe, meanwhile, that preference falsification is not only a problem in autocracies. One of the primary reasons people lie isn’t because they’re afraid of what the government will think, but because they don’t want to cause friction in their more immediate social circles, including their friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Autocracy makes it risky to be out of step politically with your social circle, but so does an emotionally fraught election like the one the U.S. is going through right now.
Thus, the probability is that many of the Americans who are telling pollsters that they are undecided are, in fact, anything but. How much you think this matters depends on which polls and models you believe. The numbers vary significantly, from around 2 percent in the Washington Post-ABC poll, to 4-5 percent in the Fox News poll and the Reuters poll, and a whopping 19 percent in the Google poll.
Most models and polls-of-polls deal with these non-answers either by ignoring them, or by making assumptions based on past elections. That may be dangerous, however. The Russian evidence suggests that in a highly emotionally charged political season like this one, non-responders may be at least as partisan as their more vocal compatriots. Watch out for the silent minority.