Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Don't Believe The Hype---Polls and the Bradley Effect

Last week, banging out similar political ideas and issues (read: commiserating) with a colleague during a break, we hit upon an "A-ha!" moment of truth which, I fear, will play a major, albeit covert role in the '08 election, possibly blowing away all indications of an Obama lead in current polls, but which no one will talk about or admit to. Voters' dirty little secret; their prrrrecious!

My colleague, a forty-something African-American woman of southern heritage and southerly, sunny disposition, took me aside to a remote café table, sat me down with some mild force applied to the elbow, and honestly decreed: "Look. I'm gonna tell you how it really went down. This is what happened to all those white Hillary supporters who all of a sudden, in a hissy fit, decided to swing their votes McCain's way. They shut the doors, closed the windows, sat down at their dining room tables and quietly, among themselves and their families decided: 'I'm not voting for some n#*%er for president. If I can't have a woman, I'm gonna go for the default: the old, outdated WHITE guy Washington insider. Anything but a black man in the White House." Her words, not even paraphrased (I have a good memory).

Having been brought up and lived in a majority African-American county outside of Washington D.C. in the 80s and 90s, I'd been privy to a child's handful of similar "A-ha!" moments---frank, honest, tough talk by members of the black community regarding racial issues and underlying, covert bias by the white majority toward anyone of color. And so not only did I believe my colleague when she laid it down with brutal honesty, I agreed with her. Because, being white (an immigrant, but still white), I have been spectator to those private, racially-divisive, dinner table conversations; some initiated by my own, conservative family.

There is some reason to worry. Throughout recent political history we've seen the jarring loss of voter support for a black candidate on Election Day, despite positive indications from the polls predicting otherwise; because no voter would willingly admit his/her racial bias when asked his/her preference by the Frank Luntzes or Celinda Lakes of the business.

Since 1982, people have talked about this "Bradley Effect," (named for Tom Bradley, former mayor of Los Angeles) where even last-minute polls predict a wide margin of victory for the black candidate, yet he goes on to lose. Bradley, then mayor, lost his race for governor despite large leads in the polls---the assumption being that voters lied to pollsters about their support for an African-American.

But pollsters and political scientists say concern about a Bradley effect is misplaced. It obfuscates what they argue is the more important point: there are several ways that race complicates polling. For example, Barack Obama could theoretically score a landslide in the southern states, based on positive, but withheld polled opinion of his ethnicity. And then there's the reverse Bradley Effect in which support for a black candidate is understated particularly in regions where it's socially acceptable to exhibit distrust of blacks. Factor in also those voters who are not captured by the polls.

Scott Keeter, Pew Research Center's director of survey research, says pollsters historically have a harder time reaching voters with lower levels of education. Less-educated whites are the kind Mr. Obama has been courting in this election. Conversely, young people are more likely to answer surveys, and they tend to favor Mr. Obama. The race of the questioner, as well, affects the poll and what those surveyed are willing to say or not say to a white or black pollster. (As does, of course, the way in which one frames the question.) It's not a coincidence that both camps employ their own survey-taking foot soldiers. These are the kinds of basic intangibles we Bachelor's Degreed elitists learn in your basic Stat 100 class.

There is plenty of hand-wringing for Obama supporters and fretters yet to be done--remember, the exit polls in 2004 predicted President Kerry. A majority of polls indicate the Obama/Biden ticket is leading by 6-8%---numbers within the usual sampling error allowed in most polls.

However, many insiders argue that race does not play a huge role in the election this year, because the economy has emerged as such a gargantuan issue, and Mr. Obama is not primarily identified by his race...according to polls. So then, what are we to make of all these numbers?

Ask Flava Flav. He'll tell you.


the beige one said...

The Bradley effect is the one thing I am actually cynical about. Possibly like your friend, I tend to take that sort of thing for granted, and I'm willing to bet that a large number of minorities do the same thing.

Too much experience at the hands of secret bigots tends to skew one's viewpoint. So, thanks for giving me reason to disabuse myself of that notion.

JJisafool said...

I was listening to Randi Rhodes on the way home tonight, and she was discussing either an article or report (I came in the middle) about the Bradley effect that essentially says it is nonsense, urban myth.

She particularly pointed to the fact that the Bradley race was in fact very close. One major poll had it 45-44 in Bradley's favor in the final weekend, which is well within the margin of error. In fact, the race was called both ways come Wed morning by different outlets, and exit polls yielded pretty wild variances.

Add that to the fact that the racism of the Bradley effect is attributed mainly to the undecided voters - it claims not that someone would say Bradley and vote opponent, but rather that voters report higher as undecided when they actually have no intention of voting black (because, hey, then you never go back).

I'm inclined to believe this. Not because I don't think racism exists and is sneaky - I believe the opposite. I think the Bradley effect is just something that fits tidily into some preexisting narratives we hold dear.

swine said...

I'm inclined to believe otherwise, however. No one foresaw the "rise of the evangelicals" in '04 and polls had Kerry/Edwards running ahead nicely. Pollsters themselves will tell you there are so many intangibles that truly no one knows what the hell is going to go down. But, honestly...polls really are tools used to influence or sway BEFORE the election, imo. They're powerful, influential, and tend to "gently" lean the undecideds toward one side or another.

momentofchoice said...

i sure do wish people had the ability to think for themselves. if i pretend really hard that it is reality, maybe it will be so one day.

polls, campaign ads, fox news, unsubstantiated rumour mills...i would really love to believe people have more sense than to be swayed by these things. come on America help me out here.

JJisafool said...

Swine, what you say undermines the Bradley effect. When it is explained, it is always based on the fact that a black candidate is polling ahead and then loses. If the polls are flawed and their prediction's value questionable, which it seems we both believe, then the fact of a different outcome doesn't have enough significance to name an "effect" after it.

Though I do tend to agree with you about the real purpose of polling. Given how ridiculously inaccurate they have repeatedly proven to be, the only sensible purpose is to influence as opposed to report.

Another thing Rhodes said, and I can see this, is that the Bradley effect, which I believe is fictitious, will be blamed for lower-than-expected victory margins for Obama, when in all likelihood it will be because of the Right's now-typical voter fraud and caging.