Articles and Analysis


The Bradley-Wilder Media Tour

Topics: Bradley/Wilder , Kathy Frankovic , Pew Research Center , Scott Keeter

The last few days have certainly been a boon for anyone interested in the "Bradley Effect" (also known as, variously, the Wilder or the Bradley-Wilder effect.). Long analytical pieces have appeared on Sunday in the New York Times , The Washington Post and on CBS Sunday Morning. CBS News survey director Kathy Frankovic devoted her column to it this week. Nate Silver added his thoughts. And Lance Tarrance, the Republican pollster who worked for Tom Bradley's Republican opponent, published a skeptical piece on RealClearPolitics on the subject (skeptical puts it mildly -- he calls the potential of an "effect" skewing the results this time a "pernicious canard and is unworthy of 21st century political narratives").

For the unlikely few who may be tuning in to this subject for the first time, the Bradley Effect describes a pattern witnessed in the 1980s and early 1990s in a series of contests between black and white candidates, including the historic gubernatorial candidacies of Tom Bradley in California in 1982 and Doug Wilder in Virginia in 1989. Polls in those races typically got support for the black candidate about right, but usually understated support for the white candidate. Over the last ten years, however, that effect largely disappeared (for more details, see the analysis by the Pew Research Center, the paper by Harvard post-doctoral fellow Daniel Hopkins and my own posts here and here).

If you read through any one of the pieces on the subject this week you will pick up two themes: First, pollsters and survey researchers continue to engage in vigorous debate over how real the effect was twenty to thirty years ago. Second, they often disagree about exactly what the effect was or how it was measured. It can be a confusing topic for those of us who conduct surveys, so I can imagine how bewildering it is for ordinary news consumers trying to make sense of this season's political polls.

Pollsters that I respect fall into two camps on this subject. Kathy Frankovic sums up an argument that has the merit of being based on the available evidence of polls conducted over the last ten years:

Despite all the claims that Americans have moved beyond race, we still want to talk about race!

Why else was "race" practically the first explanation offered in New Hampshire this year when pre-primary polls failed to predict the outcome? Was it really the resurrection of the so-called "Bradley Effect" from all the way back in 1982?

Why else did people "forget" (or disregard) that in 2006 pre-election polls in two state-wide races involving black candidates showed NO indication of ths "effect? [...]

We've gone through this topic many times, yet we still seem to worry about people lying to pollsters, or that black interviewers will get different answers from respondents than white interviewers do. Some of us even believe that every person who has yet to declare a preference publicly must, somehow, be motivated by race.

Yet several Democratic campaign pollsters I talk to and respect still have strong memories of the illusory leads their clients had in some of those high profile races in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their attitudes are a lot like those of this non-pollster friend of TPMCafe contributor Todd Gitlin:

Whether there is or is not a "Bradley effect," it is very helpful to believe there is one, and very dangerous to believe there is not. And since we don't know for sure, the only prudent thing to do is to assume that there is one. Any other assumption is reckless. Whether it is due to a "Bradley effect," an October surprise, or some other variant, the good guys always need 60% to eke out a 1% victory. If Dems get overconfident, then McCain will have us just where he wants us. Instead of measuring the drapes, we need to be fighting to stave off defeat.

Reading over all of the articles over the last week -- and the debate that continues in our comments section -- I realize I could spend every moment of the next three weeks writing and speculating about the "effect" without getting any closer to the truth of what we might see on November 4. What would be helpful, and what I hope pollsters will pursue, are new measurements to guide us in how to interpret or allocate the remaining undecided voters and tell us (something admittedly harder to measure) whether those refusing to participate in surveys may be skewing results in a particular direction.

If you are a pollster, I highly recommend this plan of action that Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, shared with me last June:

We plan to do three things to monitor this. One is to continue to try to measure the impact of racial attitudes on voter judgments, as we did in our March 2008 national poll. We don't have a way to bring this to bear directly upon our vote estimates, but at least it can tell us how important racial attitudes are relative to other considerations. Second, we will look at race of interviewer effects. In my polling in Virginia in 1989, race of interviewer effects were quite strong, and my polls (like almost everyone else's) understated support for the white Republican candidate against Doug Wilder. Third, we will look at respondents who are hard to reach and especially at refusal conversions to see if there is any pattern there. As you may recall, in our 1997 non-response experiment we did find some weak evidence that the most resistant respondents were less favorable to African Americans. We were unable to replicate this in our 2003 nonresponse study, but we think it's worth looking at during this election season.

Finally, with respect to the allocation of undecideds, we will very much follow the course we did in 2004 and that Andy described to you in [your 2006] interview. We'll probably discard a portion of them, and then allocate the rest based on the evidence we have about them in the survey: their demographics, the attitudes and values, and perhaps a little bit on the basis of how the leaners overall are leaning. Racial attitudes are likely to be a part of this evidence-based process, especially if we continue to find them to be correlated with the vote among the decided.



Everybody seems to forget a crucial thing about the supposed Bradley effect. The same ballot with Bradley running for governor in 1982 had a gun control initiative that he supported. Because of it, rural/conservative turnout was quite high. The initiative lost badly, and Bradley (who was only leading in the polls by a few points) lost by a fraction of a point. You have to look at the larger context of an election. I'm not saying there's no effect - only that it may have been exaggerated.

By the way, what gives with Battleground? How do you go from 8 to 13 when everybody else is basically unchanged? Did they change their partisan ID balance again?



Does anyone know of tracking data for the fraction of registered voters who have already voted? I have seen some sporadic data of this type at the state level and the national level. Presumably the pollsters are asking voters every day if they have already voted so it should be possible to track this number. I would like to see the fraction of the sample that has already voted each day.

I assume this is unlikely to have much of a Bradley effect.



People forget that Bradley lost by less than 100,000 out of 7M votes. The last tracking poll in the state had Bradley and Deukmejian at 45 vs. 46, a 1% point is statistically insignificant. That race was a real toss-up, and the gun-control measure was a great GOTV for the Republican.


Gary Kilbride:

I was in college in Los Angeles in 1982. My roommate was an incredibly energized member of the Young Republicans. He would literally sleep through his morning classes then be gung ho all afternoon and night while working for "Duke." That's all I heard all year, Duke. The other members of that group would storm our apartment frequently for strategy sessions. Initially they tried to taunt my partisanship until they realized I could argue effectively and condescendingly. At that point it was a mumbled hello.

All year it was a marked contrast. The Los Angeles media definitely pushed the theme that Bradley was the favorite, but in my presence I saw the Republican enthusiasm, energy and optimism. Not one second did they expect to lose. I wasn't a bit surprised when Duke won.

I remember the gun control bill, but keep in mind that was balanced by the situational terrain nationwide, a pro-Democratic midterm with a net of 27 House seats slipping away from Reagan.

The Wilder example was always more convincing to me.


Potomac Bob:

Re: " . . . Bradley (who was only leading in the polls by a few points) lost by a fraction of a point: Didn't the Pew Research paper say that Bradley led during some time before election day by anywhere from 9 to 22 points? I think I remember the Wilder numbers - he was ahead by something like 12 points then on election day it was close, a point or two. Of course my memory could be faulty, but neither of those examples seems like they prove there was no Bradley-Wilder Effect.



All of this really depends on what you mean by the "Bradley Effect". I did a masters thesis on the situation in California. I found little evidence that polled respondents lied about voting "for" Bradley and then switched votes. Rather the effect was completely explained by "Undecideds", primarily in the Central Valley and Orange Counties swinging disproportionately to Deukmejian.

As well there was an exit poll effect. This again was portrayed by the media as their being "lied to" by voters. But they neglected to say that many people approached refused to be interviewed at all. These exit polls suggested that Bradley won by about 2% and this turned out to be misleading. Again, it's likely that many voters refused comment (perhaps because some of the newspeople were minority and they didn't want to be 'criticized' for their choice).

Lastly, it turned out that absentee ballots in this election were, as usual at that time, predominantly submitted by those supporting the Republican candidate. Thus the exit polls bumped Bradley up a bit higher than warranted.

Reagan really came out hard for the "Duke" toward the end of the campaign and it may be that this last month of political activity changed the minds of many voters. Bradley hardly campaigned in the Central Valley at all.

Bradley was hardly a charismatic guy...and neither was Deukmejian. But Reagan got the Republicans really fired up.


Honestly, I believe a significant portion of the media discussion on race comes from people who are actually trying to do Obama a favor (yes - I think they are biased towards him, just as they were against Gore, Kerry, and Carter). A lot of psychological data indicate that people who harbor unconscious racial bias (well meaning, but cannot quite figure out why they do not trust Obama) can move beyond it when they are forced to think about it. The littany of articles on the subject have actually caused people to do this thinking.

Of course, some may reject my argument as a conspiracy theory, but I do not believe it is a coincidence, for example, that the same day the NY Times ran a story saying Obama was "not close" to Ayers, his campaign released a statement saying the same thing. His attack on McCain's mortgage plan also coincided with a NY Times piece making the same arguments. And the NY Times also was first to tell us that Obama really wasn't much into drugs (even Obama didn't say that). Yesterday the Detroit News Online ran a story quoting Obama's friends saying how great he will be on gay issues (even though he opposes same-sex marriage).

In any event, I say, sit back and enjoy a this brief moment every four years when the media attempt to engage in serious inquiry. After Bush leaves office, it's hello Britney and the next "incredibly lame news story." http://dissentingjustice.blogspot.com/2008/10/12-incredibly-lame-news-stories-that.html


Post a comment

Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.