Are We Overhyping the Bradley Effect?

13 10 2008

As Obama’s lead in the national and statewide polls swells, inquisitive and perhaps bored pundits are beginning to ask how much of that lead will diminish once certain white voters step into the both. That is to say, how much of Obama’s lead is vulnerable to the so-called Bradley effect, which occurs when white, and perhaps other non-black voters, overstate their support for an African American candidate as respondents in opinion polls.

In a piece entitled “Funny Numbers” The New York Times quotes Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, who warns us “How much we are under-representing people who are intolerant and therefore unlikely to vote for Obama is an open question… I suspect not a great deal, but maybe some. And ‘maybe some’ could be crucial in a tight election.”

Maybe. Just maybe.

Funny, how even as Obama’s lead grows we still need to be alarmist about how he might actually be losing.

Interestingly enough, the piece goes on to make a subtle distinction between what may appear to be manifestations of the Bradley effect and the phenomenon of racial polarized voting. The latter occurs when in a given election whether its for the head of the school board or the presidency people vote for candidates of the same race often in an effort to protect themselves from perceived threats to their own political and social power as people living in racialized communities. This part may be the hardest to capture because of on going on the ground dynamics.

Who knows if some older white people while standing on line to vote will be so annoyed by a group of black college kids wearing one of those bootleg Obama t-shirts and decide to pull the lever for McCain instead?

I suppose we could speculate about such things all day, but one of the benefits of the almost endless Democratic primary contest is the wealth of data we have from numerous head to head match ups between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The data compiled in the table below by the good folks at is of polling within the last 2 weeks before that state’s primary as averaged out by A close reading of the data reveals that there is little proof of the Bradley effect harming Obama’s chances against Hillary Clinton. In fact, more times than not, Obama outperformed the polling estimates. This is almost as true in states where he won as it is of states where he lost.

This is not to say that race is not a factor. But it is to suggest that race plays a far more subtle role in voting than the media likes to admit. Regionally, Obama more than outperformed his polling average in the South, which in part is due to a great deal of support from black voters. But he also enjoyed some of his greatest support in overwhelming white states such as Iowa, Oregon and Wisconsin, where he blew away his initial polling averages.  In states with very few black voters racially polarized voting does not seem to have much of an impact, whereas its a different story in more diverse states where black folk approach or exceed their national averages, such as states like Ohio and Texas.





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