Election 2016

Will Closeted Trump Voters Pull a Bradley Effect?

What happens in the voting booth isn't necessarily what's revealed in polls.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Just before Election Day in November 1982, according to most polls, Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, appeared poised to become governor of California. Despite leading in the polls, Bradley lost the election to Republican George Deukmejian. Instead of becoming the first African American governor of California, Bradley became the namesake of something called The Bradley Effect.

The Bradley Effect -- also known as The Wilder Effect -- proposed that voters that said they would vote for the African American candidate were either too embarrassed, or ashamed for fear of being labeled racist, to admit to pollsters that they wouldn’t vote for a Black man as Governor.

According to Ballotpedia, “A related concept is social desirability bias, which describes the tendency of individuals to ‘report inaccurately on sensitive topics in order to present themselves in the best possible light.’ According to New York University professor Patrick Egan, ‘Anyone who studies survey research will tell you one of the biggest problems we encounter is this notion of social desirability bias.’ Some researchers and pollsters theorize that a number of white voters may give inaccurate polling responses for fear that, by stating their true preference, they will open themselves to criticism of racial motivation.”

While most of the above appear to apply particularly to elections where African Americans are facing off again white candidates, this year’s presidential election may contain some of those same dynamics. Some pundits are claiming that a Bradley Effect-like situation might be in play with voters who support Donald Trump, but are un-willing to admit it to pollsters.

Ever since the Bradley-Wilson contest, the notion of a Bradley Effect has been raised fairly frequently. In this presidential race, it may be worth posing two countervailing questions: Are independent voters – not the hardcore who support Trump regardless of what he says or does – reluctant to admit they are going to vote for him, yet when they arrive at the polling places they will vote for him?

Or, might it be possible some voters that have declared support for Trump will, in the sanctity of the voting booth, vote for Hillary Clinton, thereby reflecting an inversion of The Bradley Effect?

In late August, Emerson College Professor Gregory Payne told Breitbart News that he sees the same Bradley Effect taking place amongst Trump voters. In 1982, Payne said: “People, when you’d ask them if they were going to vote, oftentimes they would say they were going to vote for Bradley or a Black candidate so they felt socially acceptable. Then when they went behind the curtain, they decided that they didn’t really want to vote for Bradley.”

“I think with Trump, what you have is you have the opposite,” Payne, who wrote speeches for Bradley and also wrote Tom Bradley: The Impossible Dream, said. “Many people are saying to maybe their friends while they’re having a sip of Chardonnay in Washington or Boston, ‘Oh, I would never vote for him, he’s so – not politically correct,’ or whatever, but then they’re going to go and vote for him. Because he’s saying things that they would like to say, but they’re not politically courageous enough to say it and I think that’s the real question in this election.”

“Trump is kind of a combination of the gun referendum, because he’s an emotional energy source for people who want to make sure that they’re voicing their concerns about all these issues – immigration, et cetera – but then I think there’s this other piece. They don’t find it to be correct or acceptable to a lot of their friends, but when push comes to shove, they’re going to vote for him.”

In May, The New York Times’ Thomas B. Edsall interviewed Kyle A. Dropp, the executive director of polling for Morning Consult: “Trump’s advantage in online polls compared with live telephone polling is eight or nine percentage points among likely voters. This difference, Dropp notes, is driven largely by more educated voters — those who would be most concerned with “social desirability.” These findings suggest that Trump will head into the general election with support from voters who are reluctant to admit their preferences to a live person in a phone survey, but who may well be inclined to cast a ballot for Trump on Election Day.”

Some of this might explain why after the first debate, Trump’s online unscientific poll numbers as to who won the debate far outpace his numbers done by accredited polling companies.  

Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has called Team Trump’s efforts the "Undercover Trump Voter" project. "Donald Trump performs consistently better in online polling where a human being is not talking to another human being about what he or she may do in the election. It's because it's become socially desirable, if you're a college educated person in the United States of America, to say that you're against Donald Trump."

“They’ll go ahead and vote for that candidate in the privacy of a [voting] booth,” says Dartmouth College political science professor Joe Bafumi. “But they won’t admit to voting for that candidate to somebody who’s calling them for a poll.”

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement.