Racism’s effect on poll results vexes pollsters

As the first black major-party presidential nominee, Democrat Barack Obama has prompted many to wonder whether hidden racism is affecting what American voters tell opinion pollsters.

Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., figures he has some expertise on that topic.

The idea that some whites will tell pollsters they’re undecided, then cast their ballot based on secret racial prejudice, has been dubbed the “Bradley effect” after Tom Bradley, the black Democratic nominee for California governor in 1982.

Bradley led in pre-election polls, then lost to his white opponent, though political scientists still argue about the reasons.

Coker wasn’t involved in that election, but he has firsthand experience with three state races nearly 20 years ago in which a similar effect could be seen.

With some of the same circumstances cropping up around Obama in a new set of pre-election state polls — a large number of undecided likely voters, the vast majority of them white — Tuesday’s election results stand to tell us whether there is a modern-day racial effect that throws off polling when race is involved, Coker said.

Coker worked as a pollster on three elections with a seeming racial effect.

In 1989, Republican Marshall Coleman and Democrat Douglas Wilder, who is black, competed for the Virginia governorship. The final Mason-Dixon statewide poll had Wilder ahead 48 percent to 44 percent; of the 8 percent undecided, 96 percent were white. Many other polls gave Wilder a much bigger lead. Wilder won, but by less than half a percentage point.

“In other words, the ‘undecided’ whites broke almost all in favor of Coleman,” Coker wrote in a memo on the topic.

In 1990, Democrat Harvey Gantt, who is black, challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina. The last Mason-Dixon poll before the election had Gantt ahead 48 percent to 44 percent, while 92 percent of the 8 percent who said they were undecided were white. Helms won the election, 53 percent to 47 percent.

In Louisiana in 1990, Republican David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, challenged incumbent state Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, a white Democrat. The last Mason-Dixon poll had Johnston ahead 53 percent to 26 percent, with 8 percent for another candidate and 13 percent undecided, 90 percent of them white. Though Johnston still won with 54 percent of the vote, Duke pulled a surprising 44 percent.

Assuming hidden racism played a role in those elections, the question is whether something similar will be seen on Tuesday.

“The three races I cited were almost 20 years ago, and changes in the country may have mitigated many factors regarding race and voting,” Coker wrote. “But, since this is the first time an African-American has been this close to winning the presidency, it would be foolish to completely rule it out.”

In a suite of eight state polls commissioned by television networks and newspapers including the Review-Journal, the percentage of undecided voters ranged from 4 in Colorado to 9 in Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Nevada, it was 8 percent.

In all the states, the undecided were overwhelmingly white, with percentages ranging from a low of 81 percent in North Carolina to a high of 96 percent in Missouri. In Nevada, 86 percent of those who said they were undecided were white.

If all the undecided white voters end up casting ballots for Republican nominee John McCain, McCain would win majorities in North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania. He would see his support increase to 50 percent in Nevada but would only reach 47 percent in Colorado, where Obama is polling at 49 percent.

“I must emphasize that this is not a prediction,” Coker wrote.

“It is simply to lay out the statistical scenario that could occur. … If McCain should come back to win in the key battleground states, this phenomenon has to be considered as one of the factors in such an outcome.”

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball or 702-387-2919.


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