Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election—and the failure of polls to forecast it—gave rise to the idea of the “shy Trump voter,” a shadowy, non-negligible bloc of people who were lying about their preferred candidate, even to a stranger on the phone. This has proven to be a durable explanation for the polling discrepancies and the 2016 election results, and it made the rounds again in 2020, even though most election postmortems found little evidence to support it.
The shaky theory is an attempt to explain a particular kind of lie and a particular kind of liar—that made by an anonymous Trump voter to an anonymous pollster. But I wondered about another kind of voter, the ones we know: What about people who lie not to pollsters but to their friends or family? It wasn’t hard for me to find some who did. For these people—who include not just Trump voters but people who voted third party or wrote in a candidate—the perceived social cost of admitting their true preferences is simply too high. It’s the kind of lie that’s easier to imagine in our own close, polarized circles.
Four voters, each with very different politics, spoke to me by phone about why they’ve lied to their loved ones about their ballot choice. Some names and identifying details have been changed. They represent only their own experiences.
David, 31, software engineer in Texas
David told his friends that he was voting for Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate for president.* He cast his vote for Donald Trump. He cited the Democrats’ weak response to the “riots and looters”—and the risk of Texas flipping for Democrats in the Electoral College.
He thought his friends would assume that people of color who vote for Trump like him—he is Indian American—were not voting in their interests. “I don’t think they’d go as far as to characterize a demographic of people as being stupid, but I would imagine that the defense of that would be [that Trump] is a really good liar and he’s convinced even more people to vote against their own interests,” he told me. “I think that’s been the token, go-to explanation for why the Republican Party, who is ‘the party of rich white people,’ has been able to get any level of minority vote.”
He said telling the truth to his friends and family would “be fighting an uphill battle.”
“The discourse itself has seemed to have shifted in a direction where it is more bimodal. There’s little room for nuance,” he said. “When the riots and looting started happening, it seemed like you either had to be for it or against it. It seemed like the writing on the wall suggested to me that if I spoke candidly about how I felt, worst-case scenario, I’d be secretly labeled racist or fascist, or best-case scenario, I was just racist- or fascist-adjacent.”
“To me, the way things were going, it just seemed like it wasn’t worth the effort to put a thought out there and then try defending it, achieve some level of nuance,” he said. “It becomes really difficult to have a conversation that strays too far from the Overton window.”
Ryan, 36, health care worker in New York City
Ryan, who describes himself as part of the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party, told his friends that he was voting for Joe Biden. He wrote in Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard on his ballot. He said the mechanisms of the Electoral College, and the near certainty that New York would go blue, led to his vote.
“I have a fair amount of friends that are also Bernie supporters, but when it came time for the actual November vote, they voted Biden/Harris,” he said. “They were like, ‘The responsible thing to do is to vote the party line.’ I get frustrated by that, because I feel like the Democrats never really made an effort to earn our votes. Their whole platform was ‘Trump is such a threat, orange man bad,’ and that was kind of it.”
He said that one politically active friend in particular told him that he needed to consider his “privilege as a white person and how certain groups in society are more at risk than” him, and vote for Biden. (Ryan is white.) “They try to shame you.”
“Any time I brought up these concerns, it was like, ‘This is not the time for that’ or ‘This is really irresponsible of you.’ In 2016, I did the ‘right thing.’ I voted for Hillary.* And I still feel gross about that.”
“They keep us divided on cultural issues and identity politics,” he told me. “There’s a seed of goodness in there, for sure. I’m not going to deny that people of color have a harder go, that is true.”
“But when you play on, ‘Oh, I should vote for Biden/Harris because Harris is a woman of color’—but what about her track record? I just think it’s dangerous. Again, there’s a seed of goodness in that, but it’s been corrupted.”
Rose, 26, student in Michigan
Rose, a Mexican American college student, is very conservative—she is active in her college’s conservative group and is planning on attending Turning Point USA’s student summit in December—and she voted for Donald Trump. But if asked by her family, she’ll tell them she voted for libertarian Jorgensen, in large part because of her particular family circumstances: One of Rose’s parents is undocumented, and another family member is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient.*
“There was one time last year my sister asked me who I was going to vote for, and I said I don’t know—but I did know who I was going to vote for. I said, ‘I’m not sure,’ and she was shocked that I said I didn’t know. She went on a rant, saying, ‘If you vote for Donald Trump, you’d be voting against your family,’ ” Rose said.
Rose said that talk of court packing, defunding the police, and socialized health care pushed her to vote for Trump. Meanwhile, she said that a combination of “bad-faith” arguments from the left and the presumption she felt from Democrats that she would vote for their party felt condescending.
“I’m so used at this point to hearing the really extreme bad-faith takes—assuming that if you believe this, it’s because you’re racist or a white supremacist or you don’t care about poor people, all of which is absurd to me because I grew up poor and I’m not white.”
Rose suspects that if some family members found out about her Trump vote, they would distance themselves from her, or stop speaking to her altogether.
“Right before the election and for like two or three months, I felt like I was having this political identity crisis. I have all these conservative beliefs, but I feel like a giant hypocrite because my parent came here illegally,” she said. “Now I vote a certain way that more traditionally would be against the whole entire way that I was brought here and how I came to be here. I feel like this giant hypocrite. But at the same time, I’m not responsible for what my parents chose to do or not to do. I can only be responsible for myself and my future. So I’m going to vote in a way that makes sense to me. It’s this back-and-forth, and it’s weird. It’s like living in secret.”
Andrew, 26, software engineer in California
Like Ryan, Andrew said that he would’ve voted “explicitly” for Joe Biden—and not Jo Jorgensen, whom he cast his ballot for—had the Electoral College not all but guaranteed that California would go to Biden.*
“I get where people are coming from, but it becomes ‘You can’t not vote for Biden because you’re white and privileged,’ ” he said. “But people forget that at least in California, presidential votes really don’t have that much of an impact because we’re nowhere near being a swing state.”
He said simply telling people he voted Biden “saves me the trouble of having to rationalize, like, ‘Oh, do you implicitly agree with Trump? How can you not vote directly against him?’ ”
“People tend to be like, Maybe this person is subtly racist,” he said. “Having to rationalize that, it’s just not worth it.
“My parents have always been Republican voters, and I’m pretty sure they voted for Trump. People say, ‘They voted to support hate.’ What’s frustrating is people are shocked and/or furious that you even try to accommodate [other perspectives]. People are more complex than this black-and-white, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us thing,” Andrew said.
“I tell myself it’s not that much of a lie, because if I truly only had the two choices, I would pick Biden.”
Correction, Nov. 18, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Jo Jorgensen’s last name and Hillary Clinton’s first name.