In analyzing the election to this point, I have relied heavily on polling data. But what if the polling data is wrong? Of course, all polling is based on random sampling so there is invariably some uncertainty due to statistical error, as well as “house” effects based on differences in how pollsters project turnout, weight their samples by partisan i.d., etc.
But is it possible that a different bias is at play, one that systematically influences all the polls in ways that may lead them to overstate support for Obama? That’s the premise behind the much-discussed “Bradley” effect (also known as the “Wilder”, or “Gantt” or “name of black politician here” effect). As most of you know, the Bradley effect is the idea that when polled, a portion of white respondents deceive the pollsters by stating their intention to vote for an African-American political candidate who in fact they have no intention of supporting. As a result, polls systematically overstate the likely vote for the African-American candidate.
By now, most of you are familiar with this argument. Scholars and pundits have debated whether the effect ever existed, and whether it exists now. Pundits such as Nate Silver, citing among other data a research paper by Harvard lecturer Dan Hopkins, argue that there has been no sign of a Bradley effect in American politics since the 1990s. Indeed, Silver argues that support for Obama was often understated in the polls during the primary, particularly in the South.
I want to suggest that Silver and other pundits are missing an alternative and more pervasive source of polling bias. Our concern should not be for a “Bradley” effect – it should be for the “Sally Field” effect. Many of you will recall that when Sally won her second Oscar for Places in the Heart, in her acceptance speech she uttered the memorable lines: “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now you like me!” And that’s my worry about a possible polling bias – not that a subset of Americans are racist, but that, like Sally, they want to be liked.
Political scientists have ample evidence that Americans often answer pollsters’ questions in ways that make them appear to conform to socially acceptable norms of behavior. They do so because, much like Sally Field, they want to be accepted by their peers. For example, National Election Studies indicate that in past presidential elections some 12% of Americans report that they voted when in fact the turnout numbers prove they did not. A similar number of Americans claim to be registered voters when they are not. This is particularly true for blacks living in the Deep South who, due to the civil rights movement, may feel the social pressure to say they have registered to vote more acutely than whites. The point is that Americans of all races are not immune to the social pressures that drive them to tell pollsters what they think pollsters want to hear.
How would this Sally Field effect bias the current presidential polls? Assume that a large number of Americans actually would like to see an African-American elected president in the belief that it would signify that we have clearly moved beyond the racist legacy that has so tainted our country’s history. At the same time, however, polling evidence indicates that many individuals have doubts about Obama’s candidacy. They worry about Obama’s Senate record which, according to research by by Jeff Lewis and Keith Poole, makes Obama the 10th most liberal Senator during his time in Congress. That voting record places him to the left of John Kerry, who lost the 2004 election in part because many voters feared he was too far left of the American ideological mainstream. Indeed, Hillary Clinton, who outpolled Obama among primary supporters in the 2008 nominating campaign, was most effective when she contrasted her more centrist voting record with Obama’s more leftist one. McCain, in attacking Obama’s “socialist” tendencies, is taking a page out of the Clinton playbook.
Other voters worry about Obama’s lack of national experience – he has spent only two years in national politics, compared to McCain’s more than two decades working in Congress.
In short, many Americans oppose Obama not because of race, but because of his ideology and lack of experience. In a head-to-head matchup with McCain, they would not vote for Obama even if he was white.
When polled, then, these voters face a dilemma: they understand that a vote for an African-American candidate is in a larger sense a vote signaling that this nation has irrevocably turned a corner on race relations. Obama’s election would demonstrate that Americans have taken a giant step toward being a truly color-blind society – an ideal shared by almost all voters. They see this hope on a daily basis, in media reports of record registration especially among young voters, long polling lines for early voting, and predictions of huge turnout on Election Day, most of it presumably fueled by the voter interest in Obama’s candidacy. This election, they are told again and again, will finally demonstrate whether America has shed its racist past.
But this same subset of conflicted voters doesn’t support Obama – not as a presidential candidate. They support John McCain. Not because they are racist, but because McCain is closer to their political views, because he has more national experience, because they admire his war record. In short, they are “natural” McCain supporters.
My concern is that this subset of voters wants to do the “right thing”; when asked, they feel the need to respond in way that signals they are decent people who appreciate the historical import of the Obama candidacy. This perfectly human need to be part of a larger movement leads them to tell pollsters they are undecided, or even that they will support Obama, when in fact they have no intention of doing so.
That’s how the polls could be overstating Obama’s support. It’s not the Bradley effect. It’s the Sally Field effect. Most Americans aren’t racist. But they are human.
Now, do I see any evidence that this is occurring, and in what proportions? One indicator might be if there were many more undecideds at this point in the election than at a similar time in 2004. A quick comparison of the polls in both years indicates that the number of undecideds is no higher this year. On the other hand, if the Sally Field effect is in play in a way that leads voters to overstate their support for Obama, it won’t be obvious until Tuesday’s results are in. If Obama loses, the media narrative will undoubtedly center on latent racism skewing polls. In the absence of compelling evidence, you should view that claim with skepticism. We all want to be liked.