Did Obama "Supporters" Lie? [UPDATED]

A campaign blog.
Jan. 8 2008 10:05 PM

Did Obama "Supporters" Lie? [UPDATED]

Judging by this morning’s headlines, just about everyone was confident that Barack Obama was going to win the New Hampshire primary by a comfortable margin. "Clinton Braces for Second Loss; Union, Senators May Back Obama," the Wall Street Journal declared on today’s front page. At 8:07 p.m., FOXNews.com reported that its exit polls showed Obama ahead by five points , 39 percent to Clinton’s 34 percent.

But now Clinton leads. This sort of jarring of our expectations conjures up past examples of black candidates who have polled significantly higher than their white opponents, only to confront a very different reality when the votes are counted. Pollsters know this as the " Bradley Effect ," christened for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black man who narrowly lost the 1982 California gubernatorial election to a white opponent even though Bradley led in the polls. (It’s sometimes also referred to as the "Wilder Effect," after Douglas Wilder, who had been polling at 10 points ahead of Marshall Coleman in the 1989 governor’s race , beat Coleman by less than a point.) Harold Ford Jr., who lost his bid for a Senate seat in Tennessee in 2006, also polled better than he performed .  

Advertisement

One theory is that voters contacted by pollsters are more likely to say they support a black candidate running against a white candidate out of desire to seem progressive. Social psychologists called this "social desirability" – the urge to act in ways that one believes his or her environment finds appropriate.

In a February 2007 article, the Pew Research Center noted that this effect was decidedly less pronounced in 2006. While black candidates lost four of five statewide races against white opponents, the polling tended to reflect this. "Taken together," it states, "the accuracy of the polling in these five biracial elections suggests that the problems that bedeviled polling in the 1980s and early 1990s may no longer be so serious."

If Clinton sustains her lead, however, all future polls between her and Obama will be suspect.

Update 11:35 p.m. : Jon Krosnick, a Stanford social psychologist and pollingmethodology expert, points out that evidence for the Bradley Effect is largelyanecdotal. There is, however, a large body of research on the effect of thegender and race of an interviewer, both in person and over the phone, andKrosnick points out another scenario:

"People are startlingly good at detecting the race of aperson over the phone," Krosnick told me. An interviewer who is perceived to be black by the respondent can subconsciouslyinfluence an undecided voter in favor of a black candidate—something Krosnickdescribes as a "priming of positive images." But the same could apply to on-the-fencevoters who have some reservations about supporting a female candidate, but are subtly influenced by a capable female interviewer. (The same might hold true inthe negative, but people are much more likely to hang up on incompetentinterviewers before the interview is complete.)

"You can make up the story either way," Krosnick says. But hewas doubtful that this sort of effect was responsible on its own for the differentialbetween Obama’s lead in the polls and Clinton’s victory tonight: "I just don’tsee how you get the discrepancy."

If the Bradley Effect becomes an issue moving forward in the Democratic race, look for the pollsters to fall back on their blanket defense: The polls were correct, but the voters changed without telling anybody.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

An Iranian Woman Was Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist. Can Activists Save Her?

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

We Need to Talk: A Terrible Name for a Good Women’s Sports Show

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now, at Least.

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 2:08 PM We Need to Talk: Terrible Name, Good Show
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Oct. 1 2014 1:53 PM Slate Superfest East How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 2:24 PM The New Interstellar Trailer Is the Most Exciting Yet
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 2:26 PM The Apple Graveyard Leave a flower for a dead Apple product.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 2:36 PM Climate Science Is Settled Enough The Wall Street Journal’s fresh face of climate inaction.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.