Why the Florida Polls Were So Wrong (Hint: It Wasn’t the “Shy” Voters)

Photo: Harriet Festing.

The operation was a failure but the patient lived. Biden was expected to take the swing states by large margins, but instead won by small ones. In Florida, he was expected in win by 3 percent, but instead lost by more than 3. Why did the polls miss so many Trump voters? And why did we have to spend four days doing math? (If 7 percent of 350,000 absentee votes remain uncounted, and Biden trails by 8 percent, then to carry the state he has to win the rest by X percent.) The U.S. Senate and the state house races were a fiasco. What happened?

The explanation for the failure in 2016 – an overcount of college educated voters – doesn’t work this time, because all the major pollsters made the necessary corrections. Another reason frequently given is that Trump voters were shy about their allegiances (or more accurately ashamed) and told polling organizations they weren’t going to vote for the president when they were. But given the obvious vociferousness of Trump’s base, especially in rural areas and red states like Florida, this explanation doesn’t wash either. When Republican voters arrive at rallies dressed in camouflage, and carrying semi-automatic weapons, the only voters likely to be shy are Democratic ones. The reason for the failure of polling organizations to accurately predict the result in Florida isn’t the undercounted shy voters, or the overcounted educated voters. It’s another, overlooked demographic: old male grumpy voters (OMGs). To better understand them, I need first to tell you a little about the small town where I live in north-central Florida and my experience with OMGs.

Micanopy is a village of 600 located about 20 miles south of Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. The population is about 75 percent white, 20 percent Black and 4 percent Latinx. With a median age of 47, we are about six years older than average in Florida, which is four years older than the nation as a whole. My wife and I moved to Micanopy for the weather and the natural beauty, and for its proximity to many of the Gulf and Atlantic Coast communities we support with our climate justice non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance.

Lots of people here boast that Micanopy is the oldest town in Florida, but that’s misleading. While it was in fact chartered in 1821, the year Florida became a U.S. territory, there were hundreds of colonial settlements up and down the peninsula for decades and centuries before. And of course, the Native Americans have been here for millennia. The Timucuans, Apalachees, Calusas and other tribes numbered more than 100,000 when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513.  In public school in Forest Hills, Queens in the 1960s, I was taught the explorer came to Florida searching for the fountain of youth, but it turns out that’s a myth, successfully promoted by 20th C real estate developers eager to sell mosquito infested parcels to New York retirees.

The Seminoles and Miccosukee are the last remaining Native Americans in Florida: the “Unconquered People” they rightly call themselves. About 4,000 live in six Florida reservations. Another 15,000 Seminoles live in Oklahoma, brought there between 1830 and 1850 by the genocidal forced march called the Trail of Tears. Micanopy, named after a Seminole chief of that name, was ground zero of the Trail and retains lots of Indian associations. The main street, with antique shops and a few small cafes and restaurants, is called Cholokka Boulevard. To get to Ogeohee Street from our house, you have to cross Okehumkee Street. My favorite Seminole street name however is Eestalustee Ave, which even locals have a hard time pronouncing.

Division Street, three blocks to the west of Cholokka Blvd., has a different derivation. Bishop Chris Stokes, pastor of the New Beginning Christian Worship Center in Micanopy, told me it got its name because it marked the division between the segregated Black and white sides of town. I don’t know if that etymology is correct, but it’s true that most of the Black folks live west of Division, and it’s where the Black churches are found. Chris and the other ministers in town – white and Black – would probably agree with Martin Luther King’s famous statement: “Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America.”

In the last presidential election, Micanopy voted roughly 51% to 49% for the Democrats. The precise electoral breakdown this year hasn’t been tabulated yet, but the results will likely be somewhat better for Trump.There were lots of indications in Micanopy that things would not go well for Biden here and in Florida generally. For one thing, Trump supporters were highly motivated. There were lots of Trump signs and banners and even a few confederate flags. (It is now generally understood that if you hang the Stars and Bars you are a proud racist.)  Another indicator was the tenor of the Micanopy Town Commission election last Spring. Frustrated by inaction on water quality and tree protection, among other things, I decided to run for one of the open seats. This was supposed to be a non-partisan election: no red or blue candidates, no party affiliation, no party support. But within a week of my announced candidacy, an elderly white male of nodding acquaintance, posted on Facebook that I was a Democrat, a socialist, an anarchist and a communist (there is some truth to all that) and (less plausibly) that I planned to turn the village into another Havana.

That attack was followed by trolling from out-of-towners who called me a “carpetbagger” and protégé of Rahm Emanuel, whom I never met during my 22 years in Chicago, and who in fact I loathe. A follow up posting indicated it was our common religion, not geography that was the salient point. (That got pulled by the FB moderator.) The most effective attack against me however, was that I planned to ban the keeping of chickens. I had no such intention, but apparently my preference for vegan sandwiches at Coffee ‘n Cream – one of the local cafes – leaked out. (There ought to be lunch confidentiality laws.) I was thus assumed to be anti-chicken and a socialist. I lost by 17 votes – an unambiguous drubbing in an electorate of 200.

Here’s another experience that foretold the likely election outcome in Florida:

Sometime in May, I was out raking oak leaves from the middle of the dirt road that boarders our property to the south. As I did so, an elderly male white neighbor in a pick-up pulled into his driveway and shouted from his window: “What are you doin’?” “I’m raking leaves to use as mulch,” I said. “You’re a damned idiot,” He replied. I was stunned and vaguely replied, “Huh?” He continued: “You must be a damned Democrat!” I then started to ask: “What’s that got to do with…?”  I was truly curious, but before I finished my sentence, he’d parked and started walking off toward his house. Then I realized: Trump had succeeded in politicizing not just masks, but mulch! A week later, Trump signs bloomed across his yard and a MAGA banner festooned his porch. Smaller, handmade signs read “Donald Jr. in 2024” and “Baron in 2028.” In fact, Baron (14 y.o) won’t reach the constitutionally requisite age until 2041.

Another elderly white male neighbor, his house also bedecked with Trump paraphernalia is equally grumpy. When we first moved in, he posted no less than six signs on his parkway reading: “No poop deposits accepted here.” (We have a dog and always carry multiple plastic bags.) He also once berated our sweet gardener Savannah and her hippie husband Bo for parking their pick-up on the edge of his verge. (There are few sidewalks here.) He rode up to them on his mower, gesticulated rudely and shouted “Get your damn truck off my property.” My wife had to intervene, telling him, as if speaking to a six-year old, “that’s no way to behave!”

And I have met other men, OMGs all, who have snapped, barked, or roared at me or others and who sported Trump signs on their property, or MAGA hats on their heads. Here is my advice to pollsters: Your missing Trump voters in Florida and elsewhere are not hidden in some rural hollow, high rise condo or trailer park. They are OMGs who are too busy being grumpy to respond to your polls. So, when you phone an older man and he cusses you, calls you a communist, tells you to curb your dog, park elsewhere or even just hangs up on you, count them as a Trump voter or Republican. The accuracy of future election forecasts may depend on it

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu