Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why there is no Bradley effect for Obama

The ‘Bradley effect’ is a supposed bias in opinion polls whereby black candidates appear to have more support than they actually do, because voters don’t like admitting their racial prejudice (or even being perceived as someone who votes on grounds of racial prejudice). It’s named after Tom Bradley, Democratic (and black) candidate in 1982 to be California’s Governor, who lost the election despite an exit poll putting him well ahead.

But the Huffington Post’s man from the Bradley campaign says that it was just a duff exit poll: it also falsely showed a win for the Democrats’ (white) senatorial candidate (hat tip to Danny).

And Kate Zernicke looks at data from a number of elections – including this year’s Democratic primaries – and finds no convincing evidence for such an effect.

Here’s my theory on why not.

People are likelier to lie to pollsters when they might feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit their true views. But this skews voting intention polls only when the candidate the voter really supports is widely seen as shamefully bad – not just when the other candidate is in some quarters opposed for shameful reasons.

When general questions are asked about race and willingness to support, the 6% or so who admit that they would not vote for a black candidate is certainly an underestimate. And as for the specific election that now looms, I think Obama’s personal ratings are probably exaggerated by the polls, but that voting intention figures are pretty much entirely free of racial bias.

Polls consistently find that about 55% of voters have a favourable opinion of Obama and about 35% an unfavourable opinion. I’d expect that there is a bias here, with people worried that their own dislike of media darling Obama could be seen as racially motivated (whether it actually is or not).

But the same polls find McCain’s ratings at about 50% favourable to 40% unfavourable. This is a separate question to that about Obama, so there’d be no racial bias here (unless people are afraid of being seen as anti-white?).

So there it is: plenty of people (say they) think well of McCain. More, in fact, than say they’ll vote for him over Obama. But as McCain is far from being despised, then there’s no shame in admitting to supporting him. And if 50ish% are unashamed to say they like him, then there’s no bar to their saying they’ll vote for him.

What’s more, except for a few noxious emissions around the Republican fringe, the McCain campaign has avoided playing the race card – so there’s no significant public narrative of race being the driving force in people supporting McCain over Obama.

It’s a certainty that Obama has forfeited some support due to prejudice. But there’s no reason to think the polls haven’t picked this up: there are plenty of ‘legitimate’, non-racial reasons that swing voters might have for preferring McCain to Obama: experience, ‘toughness’, his war record and any number of policy issues.

And it’s possible, of course, that the polls are wrong for other reasons. We’ll find out soon enough.


Cassilis said...

I'm gorging myself on US political podcasts at the moment (Meet the Press, KCRW etc.) and the line from US pundits seems to be any Bradley effect that does exist is countered many times over by Obama huge support (and increased registration) among African-Amercian voters not to mention white liberal / centrist voters who may well have preferred McCain to Clinton but are excited by watershed moment an Obama presidency would be.

I suspect for every vote Obama loses on race he gains 3/4 on similar grounds. There's aspects of that whole thing I find a little disconcerting (policy anyone?) but on the whole it's a better place than the US was in not 20 years ago...

Anonymous said...

The Republican Party is just a bunch of white racists. It is filled with a bunch of Angry White Guys (and Gals) who think the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act ruined America because it made it a lot harder for whites from Ireland, England, France, Germany, Italy, etc. to immigrate to the U.S. and made it a lot easier for the Chinese, Indians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Egyptians, etc. to immigrate to the U.S. What these racists don't GET is that the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act (Thank You Senator Ted Kennedy) greatly increased Diversity in the U.S. which has made OUR Nation stronger and a much more multicultural place to live. Before 1965 Whites of European descent made up 88% of the U.S. population. Now whites only make up 65% of the U.S. population and by 2042 they will only make up 49% of the population. By 2100 Whites of European descent will only make up about 30% of the U.S. population and also by the year 2100 only 3% of the World Population will be White. The 2008 Election is just a turning point in American History though. By the end of this century white Europeans will be out of power in the United States(FINALLY!) and then we can finally end WHITE PRIVILEDGE and can get REAL Affirmative Action, REAL Reparations, REAL Change, and begin to redistribute wealth and property back to those who deserve it. The World is Flat. The white racist Republicans just don't seem to get it!

Chris said...

I think you're absolutely right in your analysis, but the one thing I would say is that since undecideds often tend to break towards conservative views/incumbents, and since in the case of their favourables they both have 10% undecided, I think that's a soft number for Obama.

So I think that while the Bradleys and anti-Bradleys and half-Bradleys-with a twist will cancel each other out, and the averages will turn out to be correct, the Obama Effect may end up being that you can't discount the occasional wacky poll like an East German with a grudge.