New York Times: Do Polls Lie About Race?

New York Times (10/12/08)

Do Polls Lie About Race?

In recent days, nervous Obama supporters have traded worry about a survey — widely disputed by pollsters yet voraciously consumed by the politically obsessed — that concluded racial bias would cost Mr. Obama six percentage points in the final outcome. He is, of course, about six points ahead in current polls. See? He’s going to lose.

If he does, it wouldn’t be the first time that polls have overstated support for an African-American candidate. Since 1982, people have talked about the Bradley effect, where even last-minute polls predict a wide margin of victory, yet the black candidate goes on to lose, or win in a squeaker. (In the case that lent the phenomenon its name, Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, lost his race for governor, the assumption being that voters lied to pollsters about their support for an African-American.)

But pollsters and political scientists say concern about a Bradley effect — some call it a Wilder effect or a Dinkins effect, and plenty call it a theory in search of data — is misplaced. It obscures what they argue is the more important point: there are plenty of ways that race complicates polling. Considered alone or in combination, these factors could produce an unforeseen Obama landslide with surprise victories in the South, a stunningly large Obama loss, or a recount-thin margin. In a year that has already turned expectations upside down, it is hard to completely reassure the fretters.

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