Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Will Obama Suffer From the Bradley Effect?

Right now, most of the polls are looking pretty good for John McCain. On an average of 7 national polls, Real Clear Politics has him up 2.9 percent against Barack Obama. Prior to the conventions and settling in on the Obama/McCain VP's, Obama was generally ahead by the margin of error; about 3 to 4 percent. But, the real question about all of these polls, no matter if Obama is ahead or behind, is whether or not there is an artificial padding in them for Barack Obama.

If you recall from the recent Democratic Primaries, there was more than one occasion when Hillary was shown to be either far behind in the polls or with a somewhat muted lead. Then, when the actual votes came in, she had either significantly closed the gap where she was losing or, in many cases, she actually won with an unexpectedly greater win than the polls were showing. While most Democratic strategists won't talk about it, the reason for this phenomena might just be something called the Bradley Effect.

In 1982, the Black, former Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, ran for the Governor's slot in California. Right up to the night of the election, almost all the polls had him winning; but, to the contrary, he narrowly lost. To make a long story short, a post-election audit was done and it was found that many whites had lied in the polls; saying they were going to vote for Bradley when they actually didn't. Thus the Bradley Effect came into being.

There are a number of reasons for this. Sometimes it is purely racial. Some people don't want to expose there racial bias so they lie about it when being polled. Sometimes it is peer pressure. When that pollster's telephone call comes into a house at a time when the family is just sitting down for dinner, whatever family member answers the phone, they may actually decide to speak for the family and not themselves because the rest of the family could be within earshot. Many of those family members, like children, won't even be voting. Interestingly, the "Bradley" post audit found men being polled to be the biggest liars.

The Bradley effect has been seen many times when a black runs against a white for a public office. It has been seen in Chicago with Harold Washington; in New York with David Dinkins; and, in Virginia when the black candidate, L. Douglas Wilder, ran for the office of Governor.

The impact of the "Bradley Effect" has been estimated by political scientist to be between 4 and 6 percentage points. This means that, right now, Barack Obama could be behind as much as 9 points; rather than the 2.9 percent average that Real Clear Politics is reporting.

I think that Team Obama is probably nervous about the Bradley Effect. Certainly, anytime McCain is ahead in the polls, the Bradley Effect can only exacerbate that lead. I personally think that Obama needs a 6+ point lead in the polls to even feel the "least" comfortable about this election. That's why I am not sure that the those who are looking at Obama's lead in the electoral map are getting or giving the true story.

Of course, the Bradley Effect is bound to weaken over time as the social attitudes towards race continue to improve in this country. Maybe, today, the effect is only 2 or 3 percent from the Tom Bradley race in 1982. After all, that was 26 years ago. Whatever the amount of the "effect" is on today's voting, it can not be ignored. If the contest between McCain and Obama is within the margin of error, the "Bradley Effect" will most certainly favor McCain. Not my opinion; but an historical fact!

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