Are there secret Trump voters out there, not counted by polls?

Briggs Hardware in downtown Raleigh wanted to have some fun with the election, so it put life-size cardboard Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton figures outside its Hargett Street entrance last spring.

Someone tore off Trump’s head.

The store owners tried again. This time, someone snapped the figure in two and put X’s and a Hitler mustache across the Republican candidate’s face.

Today, Trump and Clinton are out of public view in a back room. “These people don’t like Trump. They really don’t like Trump,” said general manager Stuart Davis.

If antipathy toward Trump can drive even a cardboard cutout off the street, it raises the question of whether the candidate’s supporters also are being driven underground in a battleground state such as North Carolina or elsewhere.

Allies of Trump, who trails Clinton in most polls, argue that there is a secret, silent bloc out there that supports him and is not showing up in polls. Pollsters counter that their surveys are accurately measuring support for all the candidates.

Either way, there’s little doubt that many Trump backers are skittish about going public.

Dennis Berwyn, a Raleigh research analyst, estimated he’s knocked on 2,000 doors in northeastern Wake County in recent weeks as he campaigns for a local candidate. People invite him into their living rooms, and occasionally they quietly assure him they’re with Trump.

“They tell me they won’t say that publicly,” he said. “It’s because of this environment that’s come from the mainstream media.”

That makes it harder to assess Trump’s strength than that of other North Carolina Republicans, one party operative said.

“If I put up a Trump yard sign, what will my neighbor think?” said Matt Overby, the president of the Raleigh Republican Club. ““When I put out signs for (Sen. Richard) Burr or (Gov. Pat) McCrory I didn’t think that.”

He’s still going to put up a Trump sign. But he wondered, “Are people going to think I hate them?”

The Trump campaign says it sees votes that independent pollsters don’t.

“It’s become socially desirable ‑ especially if you’re a college-educated person in the United States of America ‑ to say that you’re against Donald Trump,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told a British news show last week.

“We call them undercover voters,” she told McClatchy in an interview this summer before joining the campaign. “It’s a combination of things. Some are just tired of arguing with family, friends and colleagues in their larger social circle.”

She added, “Would-be Trump voters are being told constantly he can’t win, he’s not electable, he’s embarrassing. She’s got it in the bag. They don’t want to publicly get into argument.”

The notion of a silent Trump majority gained currency last December, just before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, the nation’s first. Morning Consult, a nonpartisan research firm, tested the idea that Trump did better in internet polls, where voters don’t have to talk to human beings, than in live interview surveys.

It recruited nearly 2,400 Republican and Republican-leaning voters for a poll of the GOP field at the time. One-third responded through a website, a third through an automated interactive voice and a third via live telephone interviews.

Trump performed 6 percentage points better on the internet survey versus the live interview poll: 38 percent to 32 percent. He drew 36 percent of voters in the automated calls.

Kyle Dropp, Morning Consult co-founder and chief researcher, said at the time that other factors also contributed to the disparity, but he added that what the divide “does suggest is that some polling may be understating Trump’s actual level of support.”

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse saw not a silent majority or reluctant voters but people who “socially, their friends would shun if they knew they actually were voting for Trump,” he said. “I think there’s some of that.”

Most pollsters, though, say their survey methods are so sophisticated that Trump’s backing is accurately measured.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, surveyed voters in North Carolina in August. Clinton led by 44-42 percent in his Aug. 20-23 poll. A CNN/ORC survey Aug. 18-23 had Clinton up 48-47. Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the state in 2012. President Barack Obama won in 2008.

Murray disputed the idea of a difference-making hidden vote. North Carolina, he said, offers “high-quality demographic information” about registered voters,” and as a result it’s “a state where we have a great deal of confidence in our results.”

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman agreed. “Part of the reason is geography,” he said. “We’re becoming sorted. So people in Bethesda (Maryland) are primary Hillary voters and people in some other neighborhoods aren’t.”

Democrats also scoff at the notion that there’s a bloc of silent or intimidated Trump voters in North Carolina or anywhere else ready to rise up and hand him the election.

“We certainly have had a number of instances of Democratic signs removed or vandalized in recent elections,” said Harvey Richmond, vice chairman of Western Wake Democrats – including incidents involving signs backing Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Don’t tell that to Trump fans.

Because critics see Trump as intolerant of Latinos, African-Americans and women, and he is portrayed as unpredictable, supporters are wary of letting friends and neighbors know they’re behind him.

“I want to put a bumper sticker on my car, but I’m afraid someone will do something to my car,” said Alma Peters, a Wake Forest stay-at-home mother.

Wake County, which includes Raleigh and its surrounding areas, has become a political war zone. At one point, a customer came into Briggs Hardware, bought a permanent marker, went outside and drew X’s and a mustache on Trump. It didn’t work. “We knew how to take it off,” owner Evelyn Murray said, laughing.

Guy Smith of Raleigh, the chief operating officer of a telecommunications construction firm, said he was afraid to put up Trump lawn signs “due to concerns my property or vehicles may be vandalized.”

Goldstein reported from Washington.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ