How Fox News Killed The Bradley Effect

Pundits and talking heads have debated the Bradley Effect (or, as we locals call it, the Wilder Effect) and whether Obama’s current lead in the polls represents false positive. Even before Obama, there existed considerable evidence that the Bradley Effect was fading. Having canvassed this weekend in VA, I have concluded that it has pretty much vanished.

Why? Because conservative talk radio and Fox News have given voters the tools they need to say things that might sound racist, but don’t really make you a racist for saying them. Whatever one may think of this as an argument, it has had the enormous benefit of eliminating the polling problems associated with the embarrassment of being mistaken for a racist when you are simply saying things that only sound racist.

More below . . .

First, the usual “voting for McCain doesn’t make you a racist” disclaimer. Lots of folks want McCAin, either because the genuinely think he would be a good president or because they think Obama (or any Democrat) would be a bad President. Then there are the ones who — as my younger brother likes to say — have drunk so much Republican Kool-Aide they bleed Red Tropical Punch. They are not so much racist as willing to believe whatever horrible thing the conservatives say about the Democratic candidate, regardless of race or gender. Had Hilary Clinton been running, these same folks would be repeating the nonsense about how when she was a law student at Yale she defended terrorists because she hates America.

No, the Bradley Effect is not about voting behavior per se, but on the discrepancy between voting behavior and polling behavior. The Bradley Effect hinges on the idea that people who would like the candidate were it not for the subconscious “ick” factor of voting for someone “not like me” and therefore scary will say they are voting for the minority candidate because they fear being labeled a racist. But as evidenced by this piece by Ruth Marcus, folks not voting for Obama have no worries on this score. You can find registered Democrats who would vote for a yellow dog, but not a black man. Happily (for polling purposes), they are quite willing to say so, hence the demise of the Bradley Effect.

I credit conservative talk radio and Fox News for killing the Bradley Effect. These guys provided the needed vocabulary to people who wanted to express their “ick factor” without sounding like racists. The most effective way, apparently, is to simply say “I am not a racist” either immediately before or immediately after a statement which makes a blanket generalization about people based on race and is applied to the specific candidate without any substantiating evidence other than racial identity, and which would be considered insulting or demeaning if said about a person of the speaker’s race. For example, take the statement “black people cannot treat white people fairly if they are in charge because they will always favor black people.” If you flip this around, if, for example, some black activist said “white people cannot treat black people fairly because they will always favor white people,” folks would find it highly offensive and evidence that the speaker is either a racist against white people or an “angry” black person and not thinking straight. So you might think that making the same generalization about Barack Obama — that if he were President he would automatically favor black people over white people — would be racist. And because someone might accidentally perceive this perfectly rational statement as racist, a voter might not want to admit it in a survey — which would produce a Bradley Effect.

But thanks to the magic of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and so forth, voters have no problem. They simply append the phrase “I am not a racist,” and everyone immediately understands that even though the statement might sound like a racist generalization based on irrational fears and unsupported by evidence, it isn’t actually racist; it’s a legitimate opinion because (and remember to use this second magic phrase for emphasis) “everyone knows it’s true.” It helps to use some unsupported anecdotal evidence having nothing to do with Obama (other than race) to prove your point.

So when a pollster does a survey, they don’t get a false positive for Obama because the prospective voter is too embarrassed to say “even though I know that white men can fairly judge the capabilities of those different from them — like blacks or women — I know that black people and women will be unfair to white men like me.” Instead, the pollster gets “everyone knows that if Obama were elected, he would favor black people over white people. I’m not a racist, everyone knows it’s true.”

For some especially nervous or sensitive voters who know in their heart this is true but are still worried that some “angry left” elitist chardonnay-sipping, Starbucks-sucking, non-mainstream extremist liberal pollster might somehow manage to take the above out of context and condemn it as racist despite the clear disclaimer to the contrary, the conservative pundits have developed an abundance of “code words” for your convenience. The best all around one is “doesn’t share my values.” What makes this so useful is that values are inherently wide-ranging, personal and indeterminate. You can readily concede that Obama is a patriotic American, a good Christian, and you trust him more to handle the economy, but still tell a pollster that he doesn’t “share your values.” Similarly, you can say that McCain is likely to continue Bush’s policies, that you are pro-choice and worried about McCain’s picks to the Supreme Court, and that McCain does not understand the problems faced by ordinary Americans, but that you still prefer to vote for him because he “shares your values.” This makes you not a racist, but a ‘values voter’ — a well recognized and respected demographic. No one will press you for precisely which values McCain supposedly shares and that Obama supposedly doesn’t. Which is good because, lets face it, if you are a “Bradley Effect” voter rather than a “values voter” from 2004, you probably can’t explain which values you share with McCain but not Obama — at least not in any coherent words.

We should be grateful to the conservative punditry for killing the Bradley Effect for two reasons. First, folks supporting McCain for real reasons (e.g., like his policies, think being a POW shows strength of character and resolve, hate all Democrats equally regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation) have credibility. The ones who would be pretending to like McCain’s policies to cover up for underlying racism aren’t covering up anymore. They are quite happy to tell you up front, since it is not racist to say Barack Obama is black and black people “don’t share real American values” or whatever as long as you use the magic words. Hopefully, this means we can have intelligent and serious political discussions after the election (at least, as much as we ever do) with folks who disagree about policy without assuming that everyone who voted for McCain is a closet racist.

Second, and perhaps more immediately important, it means that the current polling numbers are much more likely to anticipate people’s voting behavior — or at least not suffer additional distortion because a statistically significant number of voters don’t want to admit they can’t bring themselves to vote for a black man. While I never thought I’d thank Fox News for bringing clarity to the political process, we owe the conservative punditry a debt of gratitude here. By eliminating the Bradley Effect, we can have greater confidence in what the polls are telling us. So for us supporting Obama, we can spend less time worrying about how voters will really behave in the voting booth, and focus on getting getting voters to the voting booth in the first place (and dealing with voter suppression).

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. The Bradley effect is live and well I believe. Most of my friends who are Democrats if pressed will admit they won’t be voting for Obama but would not say that to a stranger. The usual line is probably — ‘haven’t made up my mind yet’. If that is the case,then the 6-10% number of undecideds that is bantered about in the polls may very well be a large segment of Democrats.

  2. Anyone voting for McCain due to racism pretty much deserves to have him as their President. Unfortunately, there’s no way to have McCain only preside over those folks.

  3. I’m intrigued by the Reverse Bradley Effect: a study of voters in this election’s primaries showed that polls in the former Confederacy under-predicted the actual vote for Obama. The study found that black voters were telling pollster what they thought the white establishment wanted to hear — and then went out and voted otherwise.

  4. Here’s a little story from that helps illuminate the status of race in this election:

    “So a canvasser goes to a woman’s door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she’s planning to vote for. She isn’t sure, has to ask her husband who she’s voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, “We’re votin’ for the n***er!”

    ”Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: “We’re voting for the n***er.”

    “In this economy, racism is officially a luxury. How is John McCain going to win if he can’t win those voters?”

    Obama has the election in the bag.

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