The Bradley Effect and Its Impact on Primaries and Caucuses

The Bradley Effect and Its Impact on Primaries and Caucuses
We have had the first two rounds of the presidential race, the first caucuses and the first primary, the first black and the first woman; historic markers in their own right. The diversity in the choice of candidates on the Democratic side can’t be missed when contrasted with the all white male candidates of the Republican Party. Democrats have proven they are ready for diversity. And yet, the polls before the New Hampshire primary got it all wrong, they were predicting double digit loses for Hilary Clinton. The media claimed that after his win in Iowa, Barak Obama could not be stopped, he was riding a wave. People told the pollsters they were going to vote for him. And yet in the privacy of the voting booth, voters returned a very different result.

What happened is the question. While a number of factors probably played into the result, one factor that can’t be ignored, was this the result of the Bradley Effect? The Bradley Effect is when white voters, who do not wish to appear prejudiced against an African-American candidate, tell pollsters they were for the African American candidate, and then in the privacy of the voting booth, following their prejudices vote for the white candidate. This was first seen in the 1982 California gubernatorial election when popular Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley ran as the Democratic candidate for governor. He was ahead in the polls by wide margin, far ahead of the white Republican candidate. The voters went to the polls, and in the privacy of the booth they voted and Bradley lost by more than 50,000 votes. White voters, not wanting to appear prejudice, lied to the pollster and told them they were black candidate when they actually voted for the white candidate. This phenomenon became known as the Bradley Effect.
In 1989, the black Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia experienced the same “Bradley Effect.” In the polls Doug Wilder was ahead of the white Republican candidate, Marshall Coleman by more than nine points in some polls. And yet when the results of the election came in he barely won, by less than one point. Again, in 1990, when black Democrat candidate Harvey Gantt ran against white Republican incumbent Jesse Helms for the North Carolina Senate seat the polls showed him ahead by four to six points. But the election night results showed Helm had won by four points. Each time these loses has been chalked up to the Bradley Effect.
But if the results in New Hampshire were the result of the Bradley Effect, why did we not see the Bradley Effect in the Iowa caucuses? One possibility is that the public nature of a caucus caused people to vote in the way they told the pollsters. In a caucus your vote is public. Your neighbors and your friends can see how you are voting. You are not afforded the privacy of the voting booth the way you are in a primary. Having always lived in a primary state, I tend to favor the primary system. I think it enfranchises more voters, and I value the privacy of my vote. However, I have to wonder if we would live in a very different democracy if we had to account for our vote, to justify it to our neighbors and our friends. Would we suppress our prejudices and greed if we knew that other would know how we voted? Or would we vote not in the best interest in the common good, along highest moral and ethical lines, and do what is popular, what is trendy?
Unlike the previous elections where we perceived the Bradley Effect, which were one time events, we have number of upcoming primaries and caucuses with the same candidates that we can observe to see if the Bradley Effect reveals itself as a pattern. We have both primaries and caucuses that might help to elucidate the voting behaviors of Americans. While a number of factors could have led to the results in the New Hampshire primary, it did highlight the way in which race might be one factor in the voting choices of Americans. Future races will give us the opportunity to see if the Bradley Effect rises as a pattern or if in trying to explain the difference between the polls and the results we simply perceived prejudice as the explanation. The 2008 presidential race is shaping up to be a very interesting contest and it may reveal more about us as Americans than we are comfortable with.

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