Bradley Effect: Will it Happen to Obama?

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    By Sara Lenz

    With the elections coming up next week, the latest Gallup poll shows Barack Obama with a two percent lead over John McCain, 49 to 47. With this type of a race, some wonder if the Bradley Effect will be a factor in the election result.

    The term “Bradley Effect” was first coined in 1982, when Tom Bradley, a black candidate for governor in California, lost the election when polls predicted he would win by nine points. Cindy Kern, professor of current events for political science said this has happened on other occasions with other black candidates running for office, such as in the 1989 race for mayor of New York: polls predicted David Dinkins would win by 14 points, but he actually won the race by only two points.

    “The Bradley Effect is when the support for a candidate in pre-election polling is significantly different from what happens on Election Day,” said Quin Monson, assistant professor of political science at BYU. “The idea is that it has to do with white voters being less than honest in pre-election polls. They are unwilling to say they will vote against a black person.”

    Kelly Patterson, professor of political science, said the Bradley Effect is a manifestation of a larger phenomenon: social desirability. He said there are certain opinions people think they should not share in public, even in polls where their identity is unknown.

    Some say the Bradley Effect was only a 1980s phenomenon. Over the last few years, in five different elections in the U.S., Kern said polls have been exactly right when a black candidate has run for office. However, she acknowledged since there has never been a black candidate running for president, there is no history by which to predict Obama”s election result.

    In fact, some see the reverse happening: people might vote for Obama because he is black. Kern said some people she knows are voting for Obama to show that America is no longer racist.

    “They want the world to know America can vote for a black candidate,” Kern said.

    Some of Kern”s Republican friends have told her they are telling others they are voting for McCain, but are actually planning to vote for Obama. Monson said he does not think this will happen, but he does think there will be an unprecedented amount of black people who will turn out on Election Day, 90 percent of whom are Democrats, he said.

    In order to see if there are still prejudices against black candidates running for office, Monson helped create a survey as part of a Harris Poll. Monson said the survey was conducted in such a way that participants would be more inclined to give truthful answers than they would in a poll. In a poll, he said a person is asked specific questions. If they say they are a Democrat and are later asked if they will vote for a black candidate running for the Democratic Party, they may feel they have to say yes, in order to not appear racist, Monson said.

    In Monson”s survey, participants were given five different situations and were told to check which situations would make them angry. Participants were told that only the total number of situations would be looked at, not the individual answers. In the end, the survey concluded that an insignificant number of people would not vote for someone just because they were black. It did find some people would be more upset about a woman (25 percent) or a Mormon (27 percent) being a president than a black person (nine percent). According to Monson”s survey results, the character of a person running for office was more important to people than race, sex or religion.

    Even if the Bradley Effect did have a factor in the election, Monson said it would only occur in a few states and possibly a few demographic groups, but there might not be any evidence after the election because of how small the effect could be.

    However, students have differing opinions. Sara Lewis, a black BYU student from Little Rock, Ark., majoring in exercise science, said she would not be surprised if the Bradley Effect has a large impact in this election. She said she thinks the effect could happen in the North as well as in the South, but she said more people in the South may be willing to say they were racist than in the North.

    Although Monson does not think the Bradley Effect will be a factor in the race, he does think racism may be a factor. Monson said racism has diminished significantly because of how people are now raised and socialized, but there is still evidence of it. Lewis said she has seen this diminishing effect manifested in her hometown, decreasing with each generation.

    While race may be an issue to some people in the upcoming elections, Tyler Nickl, a junior majoring in American studies, said the most important issue everyone is looking at right now is the economy. He said in the 1980s there were issues about race being discussed, like affirmative action and civil rights, but those are not big topics right now. Alyson Paxman, a sophomore from Redlands, Calif., said the support Obama is receiving is evidence race is not as big a factor as it once was.

    Bret Evans, a junior majoring in political science, thinks America”s younger generation is generally open-minded, and that other variables besides race will take precedence.

    “Most voters are going to care about the issues and not vote off of something so superficial as race,” Evans said.

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