The Shy Rider Effect – Hidden Passengers of the TrumpTrain

The rise of Donald J. Trump was unpredicted and shocking to countless media outlets, politicians, pollsters, and even voters. Many cited the negative comments in the media, which all campaigning politicians have especially when they run against 17 opponents, as evidence of Trump’s inability to win. Often in the media people who are not on the TrumpTrain would say things like “I don’t know anyone voting for him”. Those who do have tickets to the TrumpTrain also comment on the lack of crowd coverage at Trump campaign events.

The media not "panning the crowd" at campaign events may help Trump in the long run by providing a bigger Shy Rider effect. (Photo Credit Flickr User Evan Guest).
The media not “panning the crowd” at campaign events may help Trump in the long run by providing a bigger Shy Rider effect. (Photo Credit Flickr User Evan Guest).

But Trump won the primary election, and even in the harshest of polls is still pulling >35% of the vote. Of course 35% is not a majority, or nearly enough to win, but it is a substantial portion of the population. So who are these voters, are they made up?

“I Don’t Know Anyone Voting for Donald J. Trump” – Voters unaware of the Shy Rider effect.

No. Due to the outspoken nature of Donald J. Trump, it is expected that much of his support is truly part of the silent population (regardless if they are the silent majority. We like to call this the Shy Rider Effect.

The Shy Rider Effect refers to members of the TrumpTrain, or supporters of Donald Trump, who are unwilling for a variety of reasons to voice their support publicly. Specifically these voters do not appear in polling data, either due to a selection bias where they are not polled, or simply because they misrepresent their intention. This misrepresentation can either an outright hiding of intentions, in the case of the Shy Rider this would be someone who says they are for Hillary or Bernie but secretly backs Trump.

It may also be the case that Donald J. Trump is a more contentious choice and thus undecided voters will report against him when asked during a non-critical discussion (ie. in person or in a poll) but when it comes time to actually vote they will choose differently. It should be noted that this effect appears to have a substantial effect in emotional decision, an area where (for better or worse) Mr. Trump has shown a strong ability to tap into voters. Typically this is referred to as a social desirability bias, where respondents to questions will answer in the way they feel they are “supposed” to. Trump’s approach to campaign is so counter to past politicians that he is prime for a huge bump due to this effect.


Ronald Reagan Also Suffered from the Shy Rider (though his Train name was not as catchy as
Polling data is based on self reporting and is subject to the bias of people feeling judged for voicing an opinion even if they believe they are “anonymous”. The “anonymous” claim is even further questionable given that this behavioral practice would make an answer question if the poll really is anonymous.

The Shy Rider effect, despite the name influence from a UK phenomenon, is not new to the US political scene. Many point to the 1980 election where Ronald Reagan significantly outperformed poll predictions in general election. Despite polling behind President Carter for most of the election Reagan was able to capture a victory with a huge late jump of support.

A jump in the outcome of an election compared to the polling comes in many forms. Some passengers of the TrumpTrain already refer to the “silent majority“, these are all the voters and opinion holder who simply do not voice their opinion. The effect also bleeds into candidate demographics and the makeup of who the opposing parties were. As it refers to racial ties the term “Bradley Effect” implies that white voters, when polled, will respond in a manner that makes them appear more favorable to a black candidate in part to avoid being called a racist. Trump’s outspoken comments against illegal immigrants, often lumped together with racist remarks, may also trigger some of this effect, further hiding the Shy Rider support. Some evidence exists to say that this effect has subsided since the early 1990’s, either due to an improvement in polling and correction for the effect or to respondents answering truthfully. Interestingly the makeup of the 2016 Presidential race may also be impacted by a gender related effect where respondents are more likely to publicly back a female candidate, Hillary Clinton.

The compounded of the effect of TrumpTrain Shy Rider’s, whether their answers are racially influenced, gender influenced, or policy influenced is almost sure to make public polls less reliable. Backers of Hillary Clinton, including many in the media who say that Trump will “never win” are only further supporting the Shy Riders. The publications the marginalize Trump’s chances of winning (Gawker, New York Times, Washington Post finally came around) will be the same ones shocked that the polls do not match when the final vote comes in.

Being a Silent Rider is neither good nor bad. But it does limit the impact potential voters can have on influencing the path forward. The would never push a Shy Rider to step forward, but we do offer a cautionary note that staying quiet on all topics means that someday, on a matter that is important to you, it is unlikely your voice will be heard.