No Bradley Effect in Nevada?

20 01 2008

Few people will pay any attention to the distinctly different results of the final tally of the Nevada Democratic caucus last night and the initial polling predictions. According to the Reno-Gazette Journal poll, it was a near statistical dead heat, with John Edwards at 27 percent, Obama at 30, and Madame Inevitable at 32 among 500 likely caucus goers. But looking at the final results last night Madame Inevitable got 50.7 percent to Obama’s 45.2, while Edwards pulled in a meager 3.8 percent.

Now with the popular portrayal of the Democratic primaries as a series of two person contests, I don’t expect these disparities to be widely discussed on the morning talk shows or on the front pages of the Times. But it should give some election watchers some pause? Perhaps, I am not well versed enough in the Nevada viability rules in each of the precincts, but going from 27 percent to barely scratching 4, should warrant some discussion. In fact, I cannot help but think that if Obama performed even 5-8 percentage points poorer than the polling predicted, much less have the 3.8 percent showing, people would be saying the Bradley effect did him in again.

Though he certainly did lose in Nevada, Obama, and Clinton for that matter, he did perform much better than initial polling indicated, which suggests we should at least refrain from presuming that the Bradley effect will doom Obama’s chances of getting into the White House as so many people seemed to imply after his New Hampshire loss.

In short, the Bradley effect refers to a phenomenon in which white respondents overstate their support for a black candidate in opinion surveys to avoid seeming bigoted, but once they’re within the privacy of the voting booth cast a ballot for a different candidate, usually a white one. The phrase was coined in 1982 when Tom Bradley ran for governor of California consistently led by a considerable margin in the polling even up to the eve of the election, but lost narrowly to a white opponent.

And, given Obama’s post-Iowa bounce in the polls in the Granite state, which had him ahead by a good margin, yet still losing to Madame Inevitable by 2 or 3 percentage points, I could understand how so many people believe the Bradley effect played a key role in the outcome.

No black candidate, even Obama, is automatically immune to the Bradley effect. And its entirely possible that there maybe some convincing evidence of it at work in some of the primaries. But the chattering classes, including among Obama’s supporters, should be aware that they are simply kneecapping the Illinois Senator by hastily attributing any lost no matter how narrow to the prejudicial judgments of certain voters without knowing the data or really examining the campaign’s outreach effort on the ground.

But by irresponsibly speculating that a black man can never be president because there are too many racist white folk out there simply undercuts Obama’s argument that he is in fact the most electable Democrat in the field. Plus, it also does not jibe well with his showing in his 2004 Senate race.

As I noted in a previous post, “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 2004 reelection bid.

Another word on polls. I, like many lay people who blog in their jammy jams, believe that some polls are useful and some are not. Some are in line with what make sense and some are not. Some are accurate and some are not. On this blog I have pointed to a number of polls that I think are worth paying attention, but they frequently only offer a snapshot of what people are thinking, or more precisely put, vague impressions of certain respondents at that particular moment. Few are meant to be terribly definitive. And, in Obama’s case, are also unlikely to capture the full range of his broad base of support given how he is drawing on a pool of young, independent, first-time, and even Republican voters, since most pollsters survey registered partisan voters.

Interestingly enough, there is no word or phrase referring to black candidates who manage beat the polling data other than “historic.”

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