Bradley-Wilder 2008?

06/19/2008 11:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My column, on what pollsters will do to determine whether the so-called "Bradley-Wilder" effect will skew polls in the presidential race, is now posted online.

In preparing the column, I also emailed a handful of campaign pollsters, both Democrats and Republicans. Their reactions did not quite fit the ultimate focus of the column, but were nonetheless interesting, so I want to summarize them here.

For whatever reason, the Republicans were more willing to go on the record with their comments than the Democrats. All of the campaign pollsters I heard from -- including the Democrats -- agreed explicitly or implicitly with what became the central argument of the column: We can only determine whether the "Bradley-Wilder" effect will be in play this fall empirically, not with hunches or past history.

Along those lines, Republicans Alex Gage and Alex Lundry of TargetPoint reported that they have been experimenting with a "list question" methodology much like that used in the Heerwig-McCabe analysis that won the student paper award at this year's AAPOR conference (see my interview with author Brian McCabe). Like the NYU students, Gage and Lundry have seen evidence that respondents are less likely to report that they could support a black candidate when asked using the list question method. However they wonder whether knowledge that Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee undercuts the value of this method, which involves estimating a "true" willingness of respondents to report that they are willing to support "an African American candidate for president."

Republican David Hill, who also writes a weekly column for The Hill, is dubious that white McCain supporters will be reluctant to report their vote to pollsters:

We are so over that (racism in polling)....Are there still racists out there? Sure. But are there a host of closeted racists that tell pollsters one thing and then do another in the polling place. I don't think so. If they are racist, they will just say they are voting for McCain or are undecided. They won't lie and say they are for Obama.

He also argues that some of the races typically cited as evidence of the effect from the 80s and 90s were " situationally specific" and that the absence of comparable "local" angles makes him not fear the reappearance of the effect in elections for President.

Finally, both Jon McHenry (of Ayres, McHenry & Associates) and Neil Newhouse (of Public Opinion Strategies - a firm that will be polling for the McCain campaign) wonder whether those still undecided in late October may "break" toward McCain for reasons more complicated than just race. Newhouse speculated that "by election day, Obama will be the functional equivalent of the incumbent in the race, and is not likely to be the beneficiary of many undecided white voters." McHenry, making essentially the same argument, fleshed it out a bit more:

It's not a given that McCain getting the undecided white vote is attributable to "the Effect." We could actually have people walking into the booth who want a change, but just can't quite pull the trigger for a guy who has so little experience, at least if national security is an issue for them. The result is the same, though.

Again, to see my take on this, see the full column for a fuller explanation of the "Bradley Effect" and my take on it.

Update: Chris Cillizza also reviewed the history of the "Effect" in a recent column.

Update II: I've also added the full verbatim comments from Pew Scott Keeter (that I quoted from in the column) after the jump.

Email from Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center:

As you know, I wrote in Feb. 2007 that the pattern so evident in the 1980s and early 1990s did not reappear in 2006, most notably in the Tennessee Senate race which was very close and where the polling was generally very accurate. While it’s important to note that the presidency is certainly different from senate and gubernatorial elections, the 2006 experience is encouraging.

The primaries don’t give us a whole lot of clarity on the issue, since primary polling faces its own unique set of challenges. But my reading of the performance of the polls in the Democratic nomination is that there was no systematic pattern of overstating Obama’s support. It was certainly there in some states (most notably New Hampshire), but did not show up in some others that had a great deal of attention focused on them (Indiana, Wisconsin). In states with larger black populations, the tendency was for the polls to understate Obama’s support.

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 the 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.