Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Understanding the Bradley Effect

People will probably debate until the end of time whether or not Hillary Clinton's surprise win in NH was due to the Bradley effect, but it is important to understand just exactly what the Bradley effect is. It is not, as some suggest, that white voters tell pollsters that they are voting for the black candidate so as not to appear racist, and then pull the lever for the white candidate when they get into the privacy of the voting booth. The Bradley effect says that when there is a race between a white candidate and a black candidate, some white voters will say that they are undecided when they actually intend to vote for the white candidate. The best work on this has been done by Swarthmore political scientist Keith Reeves. Here's what he has to say about the New Hampshire results:

Since most voters won’t admit to having any racial bias, Obama’s campaign will have to be more creative with the questions they ask. Keith Reeves, a political scientist at Swarthmore, has studied the Bradley effect closely. In order to test for racial bias, he asked white voters about their attitudes toward welfare and blacks. Using a scale of one to seven, voters were asked to say if blacks as a group were more likely “to prefer to be self-supporting” or “to live on welfare.” Reeves told me, “That ends up being a very interesting predictor of how whites feel about African-Americans as a group but also whether they transpose those feelings onto the African-American who is running. It’s less likely to lend itself to social-desirability bias. Whites can answer that question without being seen as racist.”

Reeves says that there’s no evidence yet of the Bradley effect operating in New Hampshire, but at least one of the conditions normally associated with the phenomenon was present: lots of undecided voters. “The voting booth is tantamount to the confessional—it’s the secrecy of the ballot that is the critical issue,” Reeves said. “One thing we found that was surprising was when you have instances of a fairly large percentage of undecided white voters, they flee to the white candidate. I’ve been looking at the polling on Obama, and there was a sizable amount of undecided voters at the end.”

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