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 .  

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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.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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