Obama, Electability and the Recursive Bradley Effect

Hillary Clinton’s poll-defying victory in last week’s New Hampshire Democratic primary had pollsters, pundits and conspiracy theorists scrambling to explain the difference between Barack Obama’s 8-point average lead in the preceding surveys, versus Clinton’s 2-point victory on election night. Polls are often wrong, but rarely this wrong, and so not surprisingly, the post election narrative was as much dominated by the unexpected nature of the results as the results themselves. Whereas Obama left Iowa with a surge of positive press, Clinton came away from New Hampshire with a gigantic question mark.

Over on Daily Kos, DemFromCT has an exhaustive roundup of the latest thinking on what went wrong (or what went right, depending on your perspective,) and while I tend to agree with the conclusion that multiple factors led to the pollsters’ pratfall, I think there is one theory that deserves closer examination, not in spite of its lack of supporting evidence, but because of it. Of course, I’m talking about the supposed “Bradley Effect.”

The Bradley Effect (also referred to as the “Wilder Effect”) describes the observed phenomenon in which black candidates score significantly higher amongst white voters in public opinion polls than they ultimately do on election day. This is popularly represented as evidence of a degree of racism amongst white respondents, who apparently shy away from telling pollsters their true leanings, for fear of being perceived as racist. But as Pew Research Center president Andrew Kohut explains in the New York Times, the demographic underpinnings of the effect are actually much more subtle:

In 1989, as a Gallup pollster, I overestimated the support for David Dinkins in his first race for New York City mayor against Rudolph Giuliani; Mr. Dinkins was elected, but with a two percentage point margin of victory, not the 15 I had predicted. I concluded, eventually, that I got it wrong not so much because respondents were lying to our interviewers but because poorer, less well-educated voters were less likely to agree to answer our questions. That was a decisive factor in my miscall.

It is not so much that white voters generally lie to pollsters, Kohut argues, but that “poorer, less well-educated” white voters — who we’re told are less likely to support a black candidate — tend to be under sampled in the typical survey. But I wonder if, in the context of a presidential primary, the Bradley Effect might actually insinuate itself into voter behavior in an even more subtle way, spinning questions about electability into a self-fulfilling prophecy? The most widely cited examples of the Bradley Effect come from general elections, but all things being equal, primary voters, particularly in our currently polarized environment, tend to be focused on selecting the nominee they believe to be most capable of winning in November. No doubt race has always been a dominant theme this election season, hence the big story coming out of Iowa being the unprecedented victory of our nation’s first viable black presidential candidate. But if New Hampshire voters — black and white alike — remained unconvinced that our nation is ready to elect a black man to the White House, might they ultimately cast their ballot for a white candidate, despite their honestly stated intention to vote for Obama?

So, does the Bradley Effect at least partially explain the pollsters’ flop in New Hampshire? Probably not… but that doesn’t really matter, for the very discussion of the Bradley Effect has the potential to impact the behavior of Democratic voters in primaries down the line.

In reality, the much ballyhooed polling discrepancy involved Hillary Clinton’s numbers only; Obama received pretty much exactly the same percentage of the vote on election night as the pre-election polls had predicted, so it’s hard to argue that the polls oversampled Obama’s support when he largely performed as expected. The data doesn’t necessarily disprove a Bradley Effect, but it doesn’t particularly support it either.

But it’s too late for pundits to take back their speculation, and it is unlikely that the specter of the Bradley Effect won’t continue to be raised in the days leading up to Nevada, South Carolina and beyond. On its surface the Bradley Effect, whatever its mechanism or evidence, appears to be a reasonable enough explanation for at least some of what we saw in New Hampshire, and if Democratic primary voters believe it to be true, it could influence their vote as well, not because they are racists, but because they perceive a substantial number of their fellow Americans to be racist themselves. If Obama subsequently underperforms pre-election polls in other contests, “evidence” of the Bradley Effect builds, as does its place in the public narrative. What results is a self-catalyzing recursive process in which Democratic primary voters, focused on electability, transform unsupported speculation of a Bradley Effect into a reality, withholding their genuine support for Obama because they believe he cannot win. It’s not racism per se that defeats Obama, but the perception of racism in others. (Which I suppose is racism, if only in a nuanced, institutional form.)

Of course, this is all just speculation. But speculation has an odd way of coming true, even when it’s not.


  1. 1

    busdrivermike spews:

    Sooo….It is a choice between someone who cannot be elected because he is black, or someone who cannot be elected because she is Hillary Clinton.

    Once more, the race to November looks like a long, slow train wreck.

    Oh, wait. I guess I should vote for Hillary because she is the lesser of two evils.

    Wonder why I do not consider myself a Democrat anymore?

  2. 2

    Dan Burf spews:

    To see some of the extensive evidence that George Bush and Karl Rove stole the 2004 election take a look at THE ELECTION JUSTICE CENTER at The Solar Bus web site. They have articles,analysis,updates, and original reporting showing what reallly went on. Or read Mark Crispin Miller’s feature NONE DARE CALL IT STOLEN on the HARPERS web. Or check out the Wikipedia entry. IT’S A SLAM DUNK BUSHIE!

  3. 3



    On its surface the Bradley Effect, whatever its mechanism or evidence, appears to be a reasonable enough explanation for at least some of what we saw in New Hampshire, and if Democratic primary voters believe it to be true, it could influence their vote as well, not because they are racists, but because they perceive a substantial number of their fellow Americans to be racist themselves.

    First, I do NOT think NH was mostly a Bradley effect. I think it was mainly a “she-looks-like me” effect. This is consistent with the votes of older females in NH. The SLLM effect is like a Bradley effect in that few women will admit to it. Ask them who they want and they are likley to say the best person. Unlike Black folks who can wear the O with pride, a woman who says she is voting for HRC out of girlpride looks .. well, kinda out of season .

    Second, I am REALLY concerned that the discussion of this is nopt only racist but Rovian. The Clintonistas are not immoral shits like the Bush crimne family, they would not pull a Willy Horton or Playmate on the phone trick. BUT,
    listening to Bill esp., there is NO way that the emphasis on race is an accident.

    Third, with all due respect to the Clintons, this whole affair smells badly of “white liberalism.” I suspect they really are as condescending as they appear and that neither Clinton understands the vast difference between their rather role in the civil rights movement and the all out commitment and moral example of a Chavez, King, Gandhi. etc. Hillary’s carear as an advocate of women is one thing, her belief that she has advocated for Black women is .. well rather condescending. here are a few examples:

    a. As FL, she chose to put Chelsea into the friends rather than a DC school. While that is understandable, her justification of it was self serving and hurtful to the effort to reform the DC schools.

    b. As a candidate she panders to the NEA. I do not think you will find anyone in the AA community who appreciates our current approach to education, including the lack of critical judgement of teachers.

    c. His/Her advisers have, AFIK, never had the sort of professional status as the AA advisers chosen by others. The recent comments by Rice, Powell, and Brazil come to mind.

    d. The continued role of Ira Magaziner in the Clinton coterie. This is exactly the sort of do-gooder liberal that turns many AA off. I do not know if he has any role in rel to AA ..he is managing the AIDS/Africa effort. but I worry about this sort of choice.

    e. The Magic Johnson tour. This was a very, very odd choice. Many AA take sexual behavior seriously and would not want Johnson as a role model for their kids. Equating Johnson with Oprah wa .. well …. ?? step’n’fetchitism comes to mind.

    Personally, I think, she has handled BHO very badly. Too many high level folks support BHO for his apparent competence not to be real. Yet, when the opportunity has arisen to show respect, she is condescending.

    As one example, in a debate the discussion of her supposedly vast experience came up and someone asked what HE would do if SHE lost. BHO said he would hope she would still help! HRC, responded by smiling, A much smarter answer would have been tor reverse the compliment.

    So .. is this racism on the Clintons’ part? Yes. That ought not to be the question. A better question is what level of racism is acceptable? Is arrogance form a white liberal implicitly racist?

  4. 4

    rob spews:

    Racism in the democrat party? What racism????

    Overall, Clinton and Obama are close nationally in the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll. But, among white voters, Clinton leads 41% to 27%. Among African-American voters, Obama leads 66% to 16%.


    In case you didn’t know Clinton is white and leads among whites. Obama is black and leads among blacks.

  5. 5

    Jane Balough's Dog spews:

    Hillary won because of dead,illegal,double and triple voters. The dems have been doing this sort of thing for years. Remember we are talking about a party who has no probelm forcing little old ladies who make $500 in self employment income to file a 1040 and supply a SS# every year but are against forcing people to carry a free ID to the polls?

  6. 7

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @1 It doesn’t matter whether the Democratic nomination turns out to be a train wreck, given the 35-state GOP pileup. The Democrats could elect a frog in November.

  7. 8

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @6 In Washington they believe Gregoire won because of (I can’t stop laughing) DIEBOLD!

  8. 9

    Proud to be an Ass spews:

    Of course, this is all just speculation. But speculation has an odd way of coming true, even when it’s not.

    Not what? Speculation? Rampaging speculations that ‘become true’ are called manias. Speculations that never see the light of day are called ‘dreams’, ‘wishful thinking’, or insanity. In polite company they are called ‘musings’ and dismissed.

    Since one can find speculations for every possible outcome of ‘trueness’, the causal relationship is, uh, er…tenuous.

    A special category of speculation is ‘self-fullfilling prophecy’, but you also need the power to put the speculation into effect to make that happen.

    Just musing along here.

  9. 10

    rob spews:

    Obama: It Took Men to Give Women the Vote

    (2008-01-14) — Democrat Sen. Barack Obama today seemed to indirectly respond to presidential rival Sen. Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that Martin Luther King’s dream would have gone unfulfilled if not for President Lyndon B. Johnson who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.



  10. 11

    Proud to be an Ass spews:

    @5…your assertion doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and Christ! you started with 4 of them. Get a clue.

    It is also noted that you are not opposed in principle to the use of government ‘force’, just what it’s used for.

    Welcome to the real world.

  11. 14

    busdrivermike spews:


    Roger, if you keep telling that to yourself, you might start believing it. If you think John McCain cannot beat Hillary in the general, then you simply have not paid attention. Today’s polls are meaningless, and the Republicans have a sh!tload of dirt on Hillary. Note their marked silence as proof.

  12. 16

    Jane Balough's Dog spews:

    Republicans have a sh!tload of dirt on Hillary. Note their marked silence as proof.

    I know. The best part is that it is all true!!!! Not the make believe bullshit you donks spew about repubs. hehehehehe

  13. 18

    Doger Crabby spews:

    ohhh the poor confused democraps not knowing which pander group to whine to… black-Americans vs vagina’d-Americans… how soon will the bitch claim she has some mammy in her geneology?

  14. 19

    exelizabeth spews:

    The problem I have with this theory is that New Hampshire is as white, if not whiter, and Obama won in Iowa. So how does that support your theory?

    I would suggest that sexism has a lot more to do with it than racism (not that racism didn’t have anything to do with it, but hear me out). After Hillary lost in Iowa, there was a LOT of sexist shit spewed about her, especially by people like Chris Matthews. And that, frankly, pissed off a lot of women.

    My theory is that most of her “surprise” support came from people who were leaning towards Edwards after he alienated women with his “a president needs strength and resolve” comment aimed at Hillary after she, *gasp* showed emotion (just like everyone has been criticizing her for NOT DOING the whole campaign!). If Obama got about the amount of votes he was expect to, I would posit she probably got the “missing” votes from Edwards, who learned the hard way you can’t be a sexist jackass and then expect women to vote for you.

    This article in Slate pretty much explains it: http://www.salon.com/mwt/featu.....=whitelist

    Also, I am curious if you here read any feminist blogs at all, because you are entirely missing out on that analysis. Not that I appreciate the sex vs. race angle the media analysis is taking, but you should at least consider women’s perspectives when you’re trying to analyze what happened.

    I would suggest some blogs, but I don’t want to lead your pathetic trolls to them.

  15. 20

    exelizabeth spews:

    That’s first is sentance supposed to say “Iowa is as white, if not whiter, than New Hampshire.” Whoops.

    Also, Can we please castrate #18? Or at least delete his racist and sexist comment?

  16. 21

    exelizabeth spews:

    Also, that article is from Salon, not Slate, obviously. I’m just striking out on the details and proofreading tonight…

  17. 22

    rob spews:

    Re: 19. The difference is that Iowa has a caucas where you have to stand up in front of your freinds and employers and vote.

    New Hamshire has a primary where you can vote in private without someone judging you. In New Hamshire you can vote your racist tendancies in private. In Iowa you can’t.

  18. 25


    seattlejew….i can’t believe you said this…..”Hillary’s carear as an advocate of women is one thing,…”

    what career?? her “career” screwing over the women that her husband had already screwed over? her career standing by while a sexual predator [her husband] was taking advantage of an intern? how about a widow??? how about the daughter [black] of his friend??? what was she? 17?? and where is that child now? you know his “love “child. well, after all his middle name is jefferson right?
    i believe that you are also suffering from white liberal syndrome….after all you aren’t a woman are you? and i think, like many male democrats, you are underestimating just how many women think bill clinton is scum.
    and i mean….we despise him and that shrill ‘ho’ he is married to.because when it really comes down to it, what do you call a woman that sleeps with a man for money or position? a whore.

  19. 26

    FricknFrack spews:

    @ 19, exelizabeth:

    Thanks for that excellent salon article! Fascinating and I totally agree with the premise. Even I (yes, me a woman too!) had SOME sympathy for Hillary after her wet eye moment. Not enough to vote for her, but I felt some glimmer of sympathy.

    I don’t think the media presented THAT fairly, though, either. I’ve since read that of the women, Independent Voters, having coffee klatch with Hil most were disgusted that she immediately lashed into Obama. The wet eyes were merely her launching pad to flail at HIM. I read that all but 2 of those ?16? women turned right around and voted for Obama instead after hearing her spiel. But the press didn’t show anything other than Hil’s [I personally think ‘scripted’] “emotion” moment.

    Sorry that HA probably won’t castrate the troll (he truly could USE it!). Trolls run amok round these fair hills taking over the site.

  20. 27

    scotto spews:

    Many pollsters say that the discrepancy was due to polling time lag. Public opinion of Clinton rose quickly just before the elections, which meant that polls taken several days earlier overestimated Obama’s numbers.

  21. 28

    michael spews:

    Polls are, largely, bullshit.

    Sex research polls have their own sort of Bradly Effect. Most of those polls show that men have far more sex partners than women, but the population is about 50/50 men and women. So, how is that supposed to work? The truth of the matter: women tend to under-report while men tend to over-report.

  22. 29


    Michael @ 28

    “Polls are, largely, bullshit.”

    No…in fact they are not (assuming we eliminate push polls). Polls can be biased in a number of ways and the sample can be drawn from a non-representative sample. And all polls have sampling error. But ultimately polls are a source of raw data that are not otherwise available. When the underlying sampling methods are sound and question presentation is done well, polls are pretty useful.

    They are less useful in a highly dynamic situation like the New Hampshire primary (and they suck in caucuses, which have a huge social component to them).

    I was tempted to provide my own meta-analysis of the recent NH polls before the primary. But the very rapidly changing situation put enough doubts in my mind that I decided to skip doing any analyses.

    It may well be that the NH polls were quite correct when they were taken. The problem was with the pundits (not the polls, per se). They were so eager for data that they didn’t use good judgment to diagnose how dynamic the situation really was.

  23. 30

    ArtFart spews:

    17,25 The article, and Ghost’s little screed that follows, should give us a hint of what’s going to happen if Hillary wins the nomination. We’ll get to spend our Summer wallowing in a great miasma of slime dredged up with the help of millions of dollars from Richard Mellon Scaife and spewed from every front page, television screen and radio loudspeaker on the planet.

  24. 31

    michael spews:


    I stand (actually I’m propped up in bed) somewhat corrected. I was painting with too large a brush.

    Sorry, but I don’t trust polls when they’re done by someone with an agenda to push CNN, ABC any of our state colleges when they do their student learning and satisfaction polling (I’ve worked on those).

  25. 32

    michael spews:

    I’m blue-collar, never graduated from college, don’t do to well with statistics or probability. What I have done is made extra Christmas and summer road trip money working in call centers. I’ve done polls and when the script says choose between Clinton or Obama and the person answers back, “I’m a Richardson person” and you have to go back and ask again well between these two who would you choose and the person says, “Well Clinton, I guess” is that really an honest yes for Clinton? Not in my book.

    When a UW student rails against the school on ten points and then likes one thing, but the ten things he didn’t like are things that he brought up and the one thing he liked the one thing on your list is that an honest, “Yeah the UW is great?”

    So yeah, sometimes polls aren’t so great.

  26. 33


    @25Xmas ghost

    The stupid thing about your post is that I am not a Hillary supporter. Your vitriol, however, is enough to make me change my mind. Who the hell are YOU to call anyone a whore?


  27. 34


    Gosh lets get it over with .. howsa about replacing debates with mud wrestling?

    Let see if it is McCain .. we can get a cadre of shrinks to discuss the Manchurian Candidate, and didja know McC has a black dotter???

    If it is Romney .. gosh what fun we can have with tablets of gold, jesus among the Indians, and funny underclothes. Has anyone seen him w/o a shirt? Would he take a second wife if the elders changed their rules?

    If it Giuliani … is he still a mafiosa?

    Is he allowed to take mass and does he believe the wine is Jesus’ blood?

    On the Demo side, Obama is Kenyan and Kansan .. that is two Ks toward KKK. I also hear he was registered as a muslim in that Indonesian school .. Islam does not allow conversion!

    Oh yeh .. the Zulus were from Kenya! Isn’t BHO akin to Sahaka Zulu? can he chuck a spear?

    As for HRC … when si she going to tell us if she has stopped menstruating? Don;t the voters have a right to know?


  28. 35

    Puddy The Prognosticator... spews:

    You know Puddy never forgets.

    Kohut argues, but that “poorer, less well-educated” white voters — who we’re told are less likely to support a black candidate — tend to be under sampled in the typical survey.

    When I brought this up after the NH Primary, the “poorer, less well-educated” white voters” voted for Hilary, the 16%ers said I was crazy. Reread post in link 4094 & 4095

    Well now that Goldy posts the exact same thing we know the 16%ers are the crazy loons.

    Puddy The Prognosticator…

  29. 36

    Puddy The Prognosticator... spews:

    “poorer, less well-educated” white voters

    ChristmasGhost- Thems be “REDNECKS”!

    So 16%ers, you can’t argue with Goldy’s research!

    Goldy wrote:”they perceive a substantial number of their fellow Americans to be racist themselves”.

    I don’t need to perceive anything here. It’s blatant and real here. By not distancing themselves from headless Lucy for 2 1/3 years Goldy and his minions prove the perception is wrong. They are enablers. And nary a peep from The vast majority of 16%ers there are racists. Maybe that’s why all these lefties gravitated here proves the perception is wrong. It’s real on HorsesASS.

    Keep up the good work. I am sure Darcy will do well with racist enablers backing her candidacy!

  30. 37

    Puddy The Prognosticator... spews:

    Well SeattleJew in #34: You chastise ChristmasGhost in #33 and then you make a crude reference to Obama in #34?

    Hmmm… Pot & Kettle effect?

  31. 38

    Puddy The Prognosticator... spews:

    Speaking of Electability Hilary her own words:

    Q: How would you define the word “liberal?” And would you use this word to describe yourself?

    A: You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head & it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th & early 20th century. I prefer the word “progressive,” which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. I consider myself a modern American progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we’re working together and when we find ways to help those who may not have all the advantages in life get the tools they need to lead a more productive life for themselves and their family.

    Source: 2007 YouTube Democratic Primary debate, Charleston SC Jul 23, 2007

    Next PuddyStudy Report: I started researching the 20th century progressive. This one will be fun. Think Fabian Society and American Progressives.

    Headless, why is your gloried NEA not teaching American History correctly?

  32. 40

    My Goldy Itches spews:

    Obama will never be elected President in this country because he is a Muslim. His Muslim faith is his “Chappaquidick” that will derail his candidacy if he survives past Super Tuesday.

  33. 41

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    #28 michael says:

    Polls are, largely, bullshit.
    The truth of the matter: women tend to under-report while men tend to over-report.

    Not sure if it’s true in places other than Los Angeles, but I know when after voting the pollsters here ask if you’re a democrat how many times you voted. That always throws the counts off since all democrats want to do the party proud but are too scared to actually vote numerous times.

  34. 42


    seattle jew @33 and @34….wow…you just never disappoint do you? ah…if only every liberal were as stupid and easily manipulated as you are! what a world!

    first of all…as a person with the ability to use free speech i can refer to hillary as a whore all i want. she is. a media whore [although she HAS been upstaged by that whiny nancy pelosi on that one] and what’s more….hillary is an attention whore and she will do anything to get her own way.
    yup.that’s who everyone wants running this country. a bitchy ,whiny, hag with no morals.
    but, please, do nominate her……..
    and as for your really obnoxious comments[AKA hate speech…per liberal agenda…report yourself dude] @34…wow, did you happen to notice seattle jew that the only people you didn’t slime were jews???
    now, that’s interesting, isn’t it?
    gee…i wonder if you have an agenda and are a little bit biased perhaps? oh, that’s right, you were “just kidding” right?
    uh huh…..

  35. 46

    Puddy The Prognosticator... spews:

    16%ers: Another hint from my post#38.

    Oliver Wendell Holmes was a great believer in eugenics and family planning, just like Margaret Sanger.

    Another hint coming soon!

  36. 47


    @43 …Xmaspirit

    I don’t think I badmouthed anyone, merely quoted what the political goons, mostly working with Romney, HuckaB, and Clinton seem to be doing this Halloween season.

    Personally, I count this sort of feces flinging as major count against a campaign and its leader. Hillary too.

    As for rednecks, if you mean the sunburned folk who do stoop labor in our fields, I do not think I have any prejudices against them. If you mean the proteotypic Reaganite , Christian Academy, Creationists? Hell, one reason I am for bHO, is that I think these folks are patriotic and will vote for BHO over Romney (my kids are too good to go) or Giuliani of the many wives. McC is a fish of a different flavor. What I can not figure out is who would be under McC if he is Prexy? Certain ky not the Repricans. Could McC get elected as Reprican and serve as a Demokit?