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Trump needs a 'stealth vote' to win the election

A 'Vote Here' sign stands as the silhouette of a resident is seen exiting a polling station
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A 'Vote Here' sign stands as the silhouette of a resident is seen exiting a polling station

How's this for some unity in this fractious political environment? The polls, pundits, and other election prognosticators are basically all coming together to say that Hillary Clinton will win the presidential election Tuesday night. The consensus has her beating Donald Trump by about four percentage points in the popular vote and by about 100 electoral votes, give or take a few.

Luckily for our democratic process, the polls and pundits don't get to decide who wins our elections. But they have made one thing clear: If Trump is going to win this contest, he's going to need a significant boost from the so-called "stealth Trump supporters" out there.

What is the "stealth Trump" vote? The theory stems from Trump's high unfavorability rating. Because so many people dislike him, a good deal of his supporters are embarrassed to publicly say they're voting for him. That includes telling pollsters the truth about their support for him. This phenomenon first seemed to emerge during the GOP primaries when Trump consistently outperformed most of the polls. But some experts believe it has endured through the general election.

Even "Psychology Today" acknowledged the heavy pressure on Trump voters to keep quiet about their voting choice with an article published in late August that noted how much better Trump was doing in online/robocall polls as opposed to surveys taken by live human beings.

Perhaps the most definitive work on how social pressures can make voters shy was a paper written in 2014 by UMass Amherst Political Science Professor Raymond La Raja. In his thesis, La Raja showed how people holding perceived unique political views are more likely to withdraw from political discussions and public declarations for candidates in order to avoid the personal costs of being exposed.

A similar scenario came to light during the political career of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Bradley lost his attempt to become Governor of California in 1982 despite leading in most polls going into Election Day. Some experts later reasoned that voters were afraid of being considered racists by live pollsters asking if they supported the African-American Bradley. Thus, they fibbed to the pollsters and said they were voting for him when in fact they did not.

This phenomenon is still being debated all the time, but it is now known in political science as the "Bradley effect." Trump, by contrast, may be encouraging a form of a "reverse Bradley effect" by the fact that many of his voters may be too embarrassed to say they are voting for him. Many of those voters could be finding it a lot easier to say they're still undecided or voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

But even if you do accept that there is some significant stealth support for Trump, how on Earth can anyone measure it to find out if it will be enough to turn the election in his favor? Enter the folks at the political consulting firm Trafalgar Group. They're emphatically supporting the idea that Trump has a large number of shy voters based on a potentially brilliant question they asked battleground state voters in their surveys.

Instead of just asking which candidate the voters supported, they also asked which candidate the respondents thought most of their neighbors were supporting. Trafalgar believes that answer to the second question helps bring out the truth from shier voters as they now can sort of palm off a potentially controversial Trump win on their neighbors. Based on the responses to that second question, Trafalgar is predicting Trump will win states like Florida, North Carolina, and now even Pennsylvania. If that is correct, then Trump is winning the whole thing.

The point is that outfits like Trafalgar and the psychologists and others mapping the stealth vote are really the best chance Trump has right now. For those of us who still believe Trump can win, there's no getting around the fact that all the conventional data is running against him.

Not all those conventional pollsters are perfect, but most of those surveys are run by for-profit businesses that need to be fairly accurate to stay in business. Conspiracy theories about some polls being deliberately weighted to discourage Trump supporters don't really pass that free market test. If Trump wins, it will be a legitimate surprise to the experts who do polling for a living just like it was for them when the Brexit vote came in.

But there's one more point that's even more sobering for supporters of both major candidates. What will it say about America if Trump wins and the polls were all wrong because millions of us were literally too afraid to tell pollsters, neighbors, and even family members about our voting choice? What does it say that a number of closed social media groups for both candidates have been created over the past year? What does it mean that even many Clinton supporters say they have felt extraordinary pressure to keep their voting preferences quiet this year?

The answer would sure seem to be that things have become way too toxic for honest discourse in America, at least during election season. That's an enduring problem that we all need to work together to fix. Perhaps we'll get there by promising to tone it down no matter what opposing views we hear at dinner, at work, or even on social media. Perhaps we'll get there if we promise not to gloat or rub it against the losing candidates' supporters on the day after Election Day. But whatever we do, it's important to note that no democracy can really be healthy when too many people are afraid to even say for whom they're voting.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.