Newsweek: Stumper: Should Dems Worry About an ‘Obama Effect’?

Newsweek: Stumper

Should Dems Worry About an ‘Obama Effect’?

The Bradley Effect is dead! Long live the Obama Effect!

Or at least that’s the cri de coeur coming from conservative circles as the 2008 presidential race enters its final sprint. Writing this morning for Salon and the Weekly Standard, a pair of political consultants–Bill Greener (a Republican) and Arnon A. Mishkin–seize on the same statistical argument to explain how John McCain, who trails Barack Obama by 7.3 percent in the latest RealClear Politics national polling average, could still win the White House eight days from now. Neither operative claims that pre-election polls are overstating the black candidate’s support–perhaps because research has shown pretty convincingly that the Bradley Effect no longer exists (if it ever did). Instead, both posit the existence of an Obama Effect. According to this theory, most undecideds are actually decided–for McCain. Which means, in turn, that the Republican nominee will benefit from a big boost on Nov. 4.

Greener and Mishkin advance different explanations for their hypothesis. Mishkin attributes it to “social acceptability.” Given Obama’s overwhelming momentum, he writes, “it seems likely that if voters are not ready to tell a pollster that they are with Obama, they are unlikely to get there… Where there is a perception that there is a ‘socially acceptable’ choice, respondents who do not articulate it are likely not to agree with it.” Greener, meanwhile, is more blunt. “If you’re a black candidate running against a white candidate, what you see is what you get,” he writes. “And it doesn’t matter whether you’re an incumbent or a challenger. If you’re not polling above 50 percent, you should be worried.”

So should Obama be worried?

I’d say no. As always, the standard caveat applies: anything can happen between now and Nov. 4.  But there are a few problems with the Greener/Mishkin theory–at least as an explanation of why McCain might still win (a claim, it should be noted, that only Greener makes). 

First of all, Greener’s claim that undecideds break overwhelmingly against black candidates on Election Day doesn’t really hold water. As evidence, he points to four races from 2006–the Tennessee and Maryland senate races and the Massachusetts and Ohio governor’s races–then compares the pre-election polls to the final results. In each case, he says, the black candidate’s support held steady while the white candidate’s support shot up. Unfortunately, Greener chooses to cherry-pick surveys that support his thesis instead of using the more comprehensive RCP averages as the basis of his comparison. As a result, his conclusion is misleading. 

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