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An Obama Effect? (Part II)

- August 21, 2008

Yesterday, I began an examination of the “Bradley effect” – the notion that white voters will misrepresent their preferences in pre-election polls in contests where a black candidate runs against a white candidate. This theory gained currency in the 1980s when, in a series of high profile elections, black Democrats went into Election Day with large leads over their white Republican opponents only to win by very narrow margins (in the New York City Mayoral Election in 1989 and the Virginia Gubernatorial Election in 1989) or lose the race altogether (the 1982 California Gubernatorial Election, when George Deukmejian defeated Tom Bradley, giving the effect its name).

I think that most interpretations of the Bradley effect are incomplete. Many commentators chalk up the existence of the Bradley effect to racism. But it’s not quite that simple.

In my book Silent Voices, I examined why some people decline to answer questions on surveys. I argued that we should think about the survey as a form of conversation between the interviewer and the respondents. Most people don’t have anything to gain from taking a survey. Thus, if there are any costs associated with answering a question – no matter how small – respondents might just decide to abstain from a question. So, if someone is uncomfortable giving a truthful answer to a question – say about drug use, sexual behavior, or other socially loaded questions – they can just move to the survey question with an “unsure” or “don’t know” answer. After all, they aren’t out and out lying, they are just declining to answer the question.

They key to understanding the Bradley effect from this point of view is to think about who would be uncomfortable answering the candidate preference question. For this, we need to put each election in its proper context. The 1989 New York City mayoral election is the case I’m most familiar with, both because I’ve done some analysis of the pre-election polling data, and because I was a New York resident at the time. In that election the preferred candidate of older Jewish Democrats (or, as I like to call them, Mom and Dad*), Ed Koch, lost a contentious Democratic primary to David Dinkins, who is black. Considering that many older Jewish Democrats had never in their life voted for a Republican candidate, a vote for Giuliani in the general election could be seen as nothing but a vote against Dinkins. Indeed among Jews over 50, 30 percent claimed that they didn’t know who they were going to vote for a week before the election, even though 93 percent said they would definitely cast a vote (among non-Jews under 50, 7 percent said they didn’t know who they were going to vote for and 89 percent said they would definitely vote). These are the precise circumstances where we would expect to see the polls perform poorly – and they did.

The New York mayoral contests offer additional insight into the dynamics of polls. In 1993 Dinkins again ran against Giuliani, this time as an incumbent. In that election, unlike 1989, the pre-election polls were very accurate. One explanation for the discrepancy in the performance of the polls between 1989 and 1993 is that in 1989, Democratic voters could not openly oppose Dinkins without appearing to be racist. By 1993, however, they could oppose Dinkins because in the intervening 4 years he had established a poor record of performance. Once the context of the election changed, the performance of the polls changed as well.

Which brings us to the present day. What the 1989 and 1993 New York City mayoral contests show is that it is a mistake to make any blanket claims about what happens when black candidates run against white candidates without considering the motivations of voters. Recent work by Dan Hopkins also points to the importance of political context. Through the early 1990s, Hopkins argues that there was a Bradley effect, but in recent years, this effect seems to have disappeared. He attributes this change to a decreased racialization of political issues in the wake of welfare reform. It could also be the case that other things have changed as well. Consider other recent elections involving black candidates running against white candidates. In 2006 Deval Patrick, a black Democrat ran against Kerry Healey, a white Republican. Patrick performed as well on Election Day as he did in the polls, but Healey was an extraordinarily weak candidate. Also in 2006 in Tennessee, Harold Ford, a black Democrat ran against Bob Corker, a white Republican for the Senate and actually slightly outperformed the polling estimates of his support. In this case, the cross pressures that marked the 1989 New York City contest were absent. Party boundaries in Tennessee were firmly established and Republicans had held the Senate seat since 1994. Thus casting a vote for a Republican was justification enough for a vote for Corker.

All told, these trends bode well for the performance of the polls in the current presidential contest. More on that in my next post.
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*Watching my parents and their friends discuss the mayoral contest was quite revealing. Many of them hemmed and hawed and said things along the lines of, “gosh, this is a really tough race; I just don’t know who I am going to vote for.” As an aside, having used my parents as an example for the last decade, I thought it only right that I tell them. My father passed away a number of years ago, but I told my mom about my paper and she said something to the effect of, “Well, I voted for Dinkins…but your father voted for Giuliani!”