Bradley Effect Does Not Explain Obama’s Loss

9 01 2008

Just as the pundits were hailing Iowa as a watershed moment where a black candidate could win at least a primary in a overwhelming white state, pundits such as, Andrew Sullivan and Eugene Robinson on MSNBC last night are suggesting that Barack Obama lost in the New Hampshire, despite his lead in the polls, was due to the Bradley effect. What is the Bradley effect? According to Wikipedia:

The term Bradley effect or Wilder effect refers to a phenomenon which has led to inaccurate voter opinion polls in some American political campaigns between a white candidate and a non-white candidate. Specifically, there have been instances in which statistically significant numbers of white voters tell pollsters in advance of an election that they are either genuinely undecided, or likely to vote for the non-white candidate, but those voters exhibit a different behavior when actually casting their ballots. White voters who said that they were undecided break in statistically large numbers toward the white candidate, and many of the white voters who said that they were likely to vote for the black candidate ultimately cast their ballot for the white candidate.

Now, I can see how this would be a tempting explanation given how Obama was up in the polls by as much as double digits after the Iowa bounce and then lost. It does seem intuitive. But that was before Clinton really began to campaign as if her political life depended on it. To her credit, Clinton really did embrace the town hall culture in New Hampshire and made her case. Some people snoozed, but apparently enough rallied behind her to make a difference in the polling stations.

By far the most important segment of voters who put her over the top were women. In Iowa more women broke for Obama than for Clinton, which was crucial to his victory. In the New Hampshire, on the other hand, Clinton won the support of nearly half of all Democratic women voters. That’s pretty tough to beat.

In my opinion, undecided women voters rallied behind her candidacy after seeing the press declare open season on her campaign after her Iowa loss and witnessing her being boxed in by Obama and Edwards in their most recent debate. Negative press for unfair reasons perhaps was a factor in her courting undecided women voters even among those who don’t find her very likable. That said, I am remain skeptical about the notion that NH voters whether they are women or men switched opted for Hillary because she got teary eyed. I am willing to conceded that she simply shored up more support on her own merits.

The Bradley effect also does not explain why Obama overwhelmingly won among first time voters, young voters, and independent voters. Surely, if the Bradley effect has any real credence, at least in this case, it should have had an impact on other segments of the New Hampshire electorate too. Plus, the fact that he won by a wide margin (43 to 31) among independents in a state like New Hampshire is an indication that even among many whites with the weakest ties to the Democratic party are willing to support Obama’s candidacy. In my mind, if the Bradley affect really applies here, it should have been more pronounced among that group of the electorate than the Democratic faithful.

Additionally, don’t forget that in his 2004 run for the Senate, Barack Obama picked up more votes in Southern Illinois, a predominately white region well-noted for its history of racial violence against African-Americans, than George W. Bush did in his run for the Presidency.

The bottom line is Obama lost to Clinton among groups she has the strongest support, which are white women and voters 50 or older. Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida, the remaining states in the primary calendar before February 5th, have a much more diverse electorate. That said, it will be interesting to see if Obama’s success in Iowa and narrow lost in New Hampshire will be enough to convince voters of his electability among people of color in those states. Latino and black voters in both Nevada, Florida, and South Carolina could decide who the front runner will be before February 5th.

By the way, Matthew Yglesias has astutely pointed out that Obama repeated the chant “Yes We Can” several times during his concession speech last night. The slogan translates to “Si se puede” in Spanish, which was popularized by the great union organizer Cesar Chavez who led the United Farm Workers Union.

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