Friday, August 1, 2008

Do Voters Tell Pollsters the Truth in Racial Surveys?

The question of the "Bradley effect" came up last January in controversies in public opinion surrounding Hillary Clinton's whopping comeback victory in the New Hampshire primary.

The workings of the Bradley effect were first suggested in the 1982 gubernatorial race in California, when black Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost a close challenge to George Deukmejian, after holding a strong lead in match-up surveys heading into election day. Since then, survey specialists have suggested that pollsters might be overestimating black candidate support in pre-election surveys in general.

John Judis offered an overview for this year at
the New Republic:

Pollsters - along with nearly everyone else on earth - failed to predict the result of the New Hampshire Democratic primary. According to Real Clear Politics, they estimated that Barack Obama would defeat Hillary Clinton by an average of eight percent. She won by three, and eleven percent is an awful lot for pollsters to be wrong by - well beyond the margin of error. In the scramble to explain how this could have happened, several writers, including Andrew Sullivan and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, have suggested that the discrepancy might be the result of what is called the "Bradley effect."
Judis took particular issue with Andrew Kohut, who had looked at the New Hampshire controversy in, "Getting It Wrong."

All of this is a nice background review to the Wall Street Journal's weekend analysis, "
When Voters Lie":

One of the toughest questions on any poll is whether people are telling the truth. It is a conundrum that looms front and center as voters look ahead to the first U.S. presidential contest that an African-American candidate has a chance to win. With polls showing overwhelming voter support for the idea of a black president, researchers and pollsters are trying to determine who really means it.

Peter Hart, a Democrat on a bipartisan team conducting the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, estimates that 10% of current Democrats and independents who say they support presumed Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama may not be giving a fully honest answer, at least based on their responses to broader questions about race. "This election is exceptionally tricky," he says.

While most political pollsters say they don't find large numbers of people lying on polls, they are taking extra precautions....

Pollsters look for the "Bradley Effect," the idea that some white voters are reluctant to say they support a white candidate over a black candidate. The phrase refers to California's 1982 gubernatorial election, when the late Tom Bradley, a black Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, led in exit polls against white Republican George Deukmejian. Mr. Bradley lost the election. The conclusion: some voters hid their true choice from pollsters. Skeptics say the issue was neither race nor honesty. One theory is that Mr. Deukmejian's supporters simply didn't want to participate in polls.

Sen. Obama leads Republican rival John McCain 47% to 41%, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey last month. Aides to Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain declined to discuss the details of the candidates' polling strategies. But the two camps no doubt take surveys with a grain of salt. "There certainly is a presumption that people self-censor to some degree," says Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center in Washington.

In a recently released study, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., found nearly 11% of people who have reported being polled said they have lied to pollsters about their views on politics and public affairs. "Why they're lying is probably as varied as individuals are varied," says Jerry Lindsley, director of the school's polling institute. "Halfway through a survey, they might all of a sudden get nervous about the kinds of questions they're being asked and start to lie or not be totally straightforward."

Questions about polling and race were raised during this year's presidential primaries. In New Hampshire, polls gave Sen. Obama as much as a 10-percentage-point advantage over Hillary Clinton the day before the primary. Sen. Clinton went on to win the state. Pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, doesn't blame lying. Instead, he says, some voters who were poorer, less-educated and white may have had less favorable views of African-Americans and were less likely to take surveys. "When polls get it wrong, it's not because people lied, it's because the people who turned down the polls have different attitudes than the people who took the polls," he says.

Read the whole thing, as well as the sidebar analysis by June Kronholz, "How the Unconscious Affects the Truth."

Note, though, that
recent political science research finds that white voters show little disinclination to vote for black candidates in congressional, and state and local elections.

That's not to say, however, that racial bias in voting is insignificant after all. The Washington Post reported in June that "
3 in 10 Americans Admit to Race Bias." However, that same survey found that voters were more concerned about John McCain's advanced age than they were about Barack Obama's racial background.

I wrote a beefy analysis on racial prejudice during the Democratic primaries, "
Barack Obama and the Political Psychology of Race."

I don't think racially "sensitive" voting will ever totally be eliminated, but a hegemonic Jim Crow structure of racist sentiment is a thing of the past. Indeed, while Barack Obama's election seems to have stimulated latent racist ideological and psychological elements (even though
much of this is justified in terms of free speech exceptions), the strong possiblity of the Illinois Senator's election to the presidency in November seems to make a lot of these debates moot.

Related: "Obama Aide Concedes 'Dollar Bill' Remark Referred to His Race."