I want to start this short treatise with a caveat that in writing this I do not want the attendant commentary on it to turn into a mud-slinging match pitting supposedly enlightened Americans against their alleged polar opposites. Rather, this essay is intended merely to limn a historical first by looking at some antecedents as to one potential reason Sen. Barack Obama, at this stage of the race, is not polling as far ahead as a challenger from the opposition party in an open election where the incumbent party's officeholder is held in low regard during a time of economic uncertainty should be.
According to the latest national polling composite, Obama has about a six point lead over John McCain. And I think the "likely voter" analysis by Gallup which flips the tables and shows McCain with a small edge among that cohort is probably flawed and not representative especially this far out as revealed in an excellent piece by Mark Blumenthal on Pollster.com. So let's for the sake of argument agree that in the national polling (the state by state electoral vote map looks a bit different) that Obama does have this small edge. But shouldn't that edge be larger than it is?
At this point in the 1976 campaign for president Jimmy Carter, then a virtual national unknown not completely dissimilar to Sen. Obama, led President Gerald Ford (weighted down with the Nixon legacy of Watergate and a struggling economy) by as much as 20 points as pointed out in a good article by Michael Barone, one of our shrewdest political commentators. Carter's lead that bicentennial summer continued to shrink as the campaign turned past Labor Day, and notwithstanding Ford's gaffe on Soviet domination of Eastern Europe at the one presidential debate most agree that had the election been held a week to two weeks later Ford would have won. Similarly, in the summer of 1988 Gov. Michael Dukakis was leading Vice President George H.W. Bush by 17 points before going on to lose badly in the fall.
Now any number of reasons have been offered as to why Sen. Obama, with a big money advantage and the factors alluded to above, is not out to more of a lead then he currently seems to hold. Those range from his newness on the national stage and slim Senate voting record to his historical candidacy as the nation's first American of mixed-race parentage to be the nominee of one of the major parties. And that brings us to the subject of this piece, the "Bradley-Wilder" Effect and here we turn again to Mark Blumenthal writing on the subject:
The best known study of this phenomenon -- a 1989 Public Opinion Quarterly article [PDF] based on surveys of the Virginia governor's race -- closed with an "unambiguous recommendation: survey organizations must record the race of interviewers and check for these effects whenever they conduct polls in black-white electoral contests." Smart pollsters -- like those at the Pew Center and CBS News -- will be following that advice this fall.
Third, according to Keeter, Pew will keep an eye on the respondents who are hardest to interview. In 1997, a Pew study found that hard-to-interview respondents were less sympathetic to blacks on questions about race -- suggesting that the Bradley-Wilder effect may have been partly due to those who refused to participate in surveys. They could not replicate the same results in a comparable study in 2003 but will be watching hard-to-interview respondents again this fall.
So what's the bottom line? Speculation about Bradley-Wilder is inevitable in the coming months, but the most worthy approach will be based on evidence, not hunches.
Today it may not be as easy to detect this as in the past as for the analogy to work as stated the final result in the polls would have to suggest that with Obama now leading by six points he would in fact end up losing or winning only by the barest of margins so we don't exactly know at this point what, if any, influence the "Bradley-Wilder Effect" is now having. Now my own personal hunch is that this "effect" while diminished in the twenty years since Governor Wilder won election in my home Commonwealth of Virginia is still not insignificant. Governor Wilder, who I supported that year in his run against Republican Marshall Coleman, the week of the election held a ten point lead in the polls. And on election night exit polling suggested that he would win handily as well. Governor Wilder ended up winning by 0.50%. So keep your eye on this factor that "dares not speak its name" as we move toward election day. To my knowledge none of the current polling is currently norming for this possible effect. If someone is aware of a poll that is, please let us know below in the commentary.