09/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Bradley Effect v. The Obama Effect

If you're sick of politics, and don't want to read another single thing about it before Election Day, then you should just skip this column. I recommend taking Opus' advice in this situation, personally.

For the rest of us wonks, before I get to examining Bradley v. Obama, today I'd like to remind everyone that August polls don't mean a whole lot. I'd be saying that no matter who was ahead, mind you. Because I think we all need a reminder that not everyone is like us (quick test: do you know who Mark Penn is? Or David Axelrod?).

Because if you really look at the polls, you'll soon notice that about a third of America just isn't paying all that much attention.

This is fairly normal, it should be pointed out. And lots of these people will actually vote this November. Call them the great mass of Undecideds.

This, to the average wonk, is mind-blowing. After following every nuance of one of the longest campaigns in history, it may be hard to accept that a lot of people, for whatever reason, just haven't made up their minds between Obama and McCain yet. A recent CBS poll [PDF], just as an example (other polls show the same thing), shows that when asked their opinion of the candidates, about a third answered "undecided" or "haven't heard" for both Barack Obama (30%) and John McCain (33%). Of those that preferred either Obama or McCain when asked who they'd vote for, 27% of Obama voters and 31% of McCain voters said that it was "too early to say their mind was made up" about voting for their preferred candidate.

Digging even deeper into the numbers, when people with a preferred candidate were asked "compared to the other candidate, do you like yours (a great deal better / somewhat better / a little better), and then only asking voters who answered "somewhat" or "a little" whether their minds were made up (a total of 44% of Obama voters, and 50% of McCain voters), the numbers were almost identical. Of the weak voters for Obama, 46% had their mind made up, 52% said it was too early to say. Of McCain's weak voters, 46% had made up their minds, 54% had not.

So even among Americans willing to answer a pollster's questions over the phone, somewhere around a third haven't really made up their minds who to vote for, one way or another. Something for all of us to remember. When three people get together, statistically, one of them hasn't decided how to vote. So which one of your two best friends is still wavering?

Heh. Actually, statistics don't quite work that way, but I couldn't resist.

But there are two other factors in this race that are unknown (and, to a large degree, unknowable) and they point in opposite directions, so they may even cancel each other out to some degree (meaning that, even after the election, it may still be impossible to accurately quantify these). The first of these is the infamous Bradley Effect. Will Obama's white voter support in the polls be higher than his actual support on Election Day? Will this be a regional factor, or a nationwide factor? And how big a factor is it? All unanswerable questions now, and possibly ever.

The other factor works in Obama's favor, but since it is such a unique phenomenon it too may be impossible to predict before the election. How overwhelming is Obama's youth support going to be? How many of them will actually turn out to vote? How many of them have no landlines, and are hence being woefully undercounted in the polls (which usually don't call cell phones)? Will "The Obama Effect" be a tidalwave of new votes, or will it fizzle as it has almost every time in the past? Impossible to know at this point.

Nate Silver, who created, tries to make some sense of the youth vote numbers in a piece he wrote for the New York Post. He, quite correctly, points out that there have been many campaigns which optimistically predicted that young folks would turn out in droves in the past -- most of whom lost. However, this may finally be "the year" for young people to stun the polling community. Anecdotal reports from just about everywhere point to an energized youth vote that is actually excited about a candidate this time around. Obama's strength in the caucuses and primaries were one place this was made apparent. And in a general election, this might even be more pronounced.

Silver ends on an upbeat note for Obama:

Barack Obama has an advantage that Howard Dean and George McGovern didn't have -- the partisan ecology is so favorable to the Democrats that he can win the election even without turning out young voters. But they are his ace in the hole. If he can get them to turn out in something resembling the proportion that older voters do, his election becomes a near certainty.

At least, with young voters, exit polls will be able to tell if there's a sea-change in their voting patterns. So maybe next time around, pollsters will be more accurate. But until another black man runs for the Oval Office, the Bradley Effect question may be still unknowable even after the 2008 election.

But again, I caution everyone that even though I'm an avid poll-watcher myself (as I suspect many of you are), it is still only August. The conventions haven't even happened yet. Obama will likely get a bump in the polls after Denver, but it may be followed almost immediately after by a bump for McCain, after the Republican convention. September's polls will show a general firming-up of the numbers for both, but with so many Undecideds out there it could go one way or another.

Until then, maybe we should all take Opus' advice....


Chris Weigant blogs at: