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Trump Campaign Hopes for Reverse "Bradley Effect"

August 29, 2016

When it comes to its electoral strategy, it's not often that a presidential campaign gives the game away so easily. This week, new Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway did it twice. Last Sunday, she personally confirmed that Donald Trump's laughable outreach to black voters wasn't intended for African-Americans at all. "I live in a white community," Conway explained, "I'm white. I was very moved by his comment." Just three days later, she insisted her losing candidate was actually winning, all thanks to what she branded "the hidden Trump voter in the country." Claiming their numbers are "very significant," Ms. Conway suggested the campaign's "Undercover Trump Voter" project would help these appalled or ashamed suburban whites overcome the social stigma of publicly backing the irredeemably racist Republican nominee:

"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."

These supposed undercover Trump voters, in other words, are simply too embarrassed to acknowledge they support The Donald. But while they feel compelled to lie to pollsters now, on November 8th their secret ballots will power Trump to a shocking upset victory.
If this formula sounds vaguely familiar, it should. That's because back in the early 1990's political scientists, pundits and the press proclaimed the existence of the "Bradley Effect" in which some white voters would lie to survey takers (and even themselves) about supporting a black candidate only to mark the ballot for his or her white opponent on Election Day. The Trump campaign, it now appears, is counting on the reverse dynamic to save it in November.
As you may recall, the Bradley Effect got its name from Tom Bradley, the former Mayor of Los Angeles. In his 1982 California gubernatorial race, he consistently led Republican George Deukmejian. As former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder explained four years ago:

On the eve of the election, polls anointed him a prohibitive favorite. But on Election Day, Bradley lost to his white opponent, Republican George Deukmejian."
Post-election analysis showed that white voters had cast ballots for Bradley in far smaller numbers than polling suggested. Meanwhile, the votes of the avowed "undecideds" fell in a cascading wave for Deukmejian.
This almost happened to me. Voter surveys immediately before my 1989 election as Virginia governor showed me leading my Republican opponent by almost 10 points. Some showed an even larger lead.

Like David Dinkins in New York City, Wilder only eeked out a victory by half a percentage point. But unlike Bradley, Wilder was prepared. "My campaign knew better, however," he pointed out in 2012. "Our internal polls always showed the race to be a statistical dead heat."
Four years later, Donald Trump and his water carriers are hoping for a repeat of the Bradley experience, but in reverse.

Just one day before Trump's campaign manager Conway unveiled her magic unicorn theory of The Donald's path to victory, campaign CEO Stephen Bannon's friends at Breitbart ran this headline: "EXCLUSIVE: Former Tom Bradley Aide Says Secret Trump Voters Similar to 'Bradley Effect.'" A cheerful

Emerson College Professor Gregory Payne tells Breitbart News that after witnessing the actual Bradley Effect while working on that campaign, he sees the same phenomenon in the 2016 with voters reluctant to tell pollsters they support GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Trump backers began getting their hopes up last year. First, In May 2015 the Pew Research Center published the results of a survey examining "From Telephone to the Web: The Challenge of Mode of Interview Effects in Public Opinion Polls." The study found "that differences in responses by survey mode are fairly common, but typically not large, with a mean difference of 5.5 percentage points and a median difference of five points across the 60 questions." Those deltas were larger on the phone regarding "societal discrimination against several different groups" and online when respondents were asked to "give various political figures a 'very unfavorable' rating." As Pew explained:

The social interaction inherent in a telephone or in-person interview may also exert subtle pressures on respondents that affect how they answer questions. Respondents may feel a need to present themselves in a more positive light to an interviewer, leading to an overstatement of socially desirable behaviors and attitudes and an understatement of opinions and behaviors they fear would elicit disapproval from another person. Previous research has shown that respondents understate such activities as drug and alcohol use and overstate activities like donating to charity or helping other people. This phenomenon is often referred to as "social desirability bias." These effects may be stronger among certain types of people than others, introducing additional bias into the results.

Then in December, Morning Consult did its own research with 2,400 Republicans (a third interviewed, a third completed an online survey and a third taking an automated phone survey) and concluded "Donald Trump Performs Better in Online Polling." As they summed it up, "Republicans are more likely to say they want Donald Trump in the White House if they are taking a poll online versus in a live telephone interview. And, if you're a highly-educated or engaged Republican voter, it turns out that you're far less likely to tell another human being you want Trump as president." Trump earned the support of 38 percent of online respondents, compared to 36 percent completing the automated phone survey and 32 percent personally interviewed by phone. But The Donald performed much worse with a live interviewer if the respondent had some college education:

Among adults with a bachelor's degree or postgraduate degree, Trump performs about 10 percentage points better online than via live telephone. And, among adults with some college, Trump performs more than 10 percentage points better online. Conversely, Republicans with a high school education or less favored Trump on the phone over online...
What explains Trump's worse numbers on the phone? One possible explanation is "social desirability bias," or in other words, people being reluctant to select Trump when talking to another person because they do not believe it will be viewed as a socially acceptable decision.

That's the very script Kellyanne Conway was offering reporters this week. California Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) was probably thinking along the same lines when he proclaimed in February that "I think you have more Trump supporters in Congress. They just have to come out of the closet, so to speak." And in June, Donald Trump himself proclaimed that when it comes to the Bradley Effect, orange is the new black:

"When I poll, I do fine, but when I run I do much better. In other words, people say I'm not going to say who I'm voting for, don't be embarrassed, I'm not going to say who I'm voting for and then they get it and I do much better, it's like an amazing effect."

Unfortunately for Donald Trump and company, there are a lot of problems with their reverse Bradley Effect dream. As we'll see below, primary contests and general elections are the not the same. Recent history provides another red flag, as fans of John McCain and Mitt Romney learned to their great disappointment. Oh, and one other thing. By most accounts, the Bradley Effect no longer exists.
That's the consensus of a wide swath of political and social scientists, one seemingly confirmed by Barack Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012. Writing in Campaigns and Elections on the eve of voting in 2008, Shane D'Aprile was blunt:

I haven't been able to find one major pollster who thinks the so-called "Bradley effect," (the notion that voters overstate their support for a black candidate to pollsters for fear of being perceived as racist) will be a factor Tuesday. In fact, some think this election could finally shatter what they see as the "myth" of the Bradley effect.

Echoing Doug Wilder's assessment four years later, D'Aprile essentially rejected the idea of Bradley Effect in the first place. Behind-the-scenes dynamics specific to a given race often give the candidates a different perspective than the public. "The unifying thread in both of those races is that the pollsters who worked them say their internal numbers showed the contests much closer than the public polls predicted," D'Aprile explained, "and express skepticism that race was a factor in the discrepancies."

Some people say they lie to pollsters, but they really don't," says GOP pollster Jim McLaughlin. He did the polling for Wilder's opponent in 1989, Republican Marshall Coleman. McLaughlin says his internals had Wilder up by just a point as Election Day neared.

When Hillary Clinton upset Obama in the January 2008 New Hampshire primary, some observers turned to the Bradley Effect. But as political scientist Brendan Nyhan pointed out, "the polls came close to predicting Obama's support. They were just way too low on Hillary." Ultimately, he concluded, "The short answer: It's unclear." That August, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight was left no ambiguity in a piece titled, "The Persistent Myth of the Bradley Effect."

As we have described here before, polling numbers from the primaries suggested no presence of a Bradley Effect. On the contrary, it was Barack Obama -- not Hillary Clinton -- who somewhat outperformed his polls on Election Day.

And as Silver was quick to note, "the 8.9-point gap separating the pre-election polls and the actual results in New Hampshire represented only the seventh-largest error in the primaries." Iowa, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Wisconsin and Mississippi all had bigger discrepancies and all favored Barack Obama.
Like D'Aprile, Silver advised press and politicos alike to dispense with the notion that the Bradley Effect would work against Obama that November for another, more important reason. Past performance would not be a guarantee of future results:

There is fairly strong academic evidence that the Bradley Effect used to exist back in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, the evidence is just as strong that it does not exist any longer. The people who vouch for the existence of the Bradley Effect are not wrong so much as they are relying on dated evidence.

In September 2008, the legendary Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium weighed in on "The Disappearing Bradley Effect." As more analysts suggested the polls would contain a hidden bonus for John McCain, Wang cautioned the usual convention wisdom peddled by the likes of Ron Fournier:

Now comes a large-scale empirical study (in preprint form) by Harvard political scientist Dan Hopkins. He finds that since the mid-1990s, the Bradley effect has disappeared. His paper is a must-read...
Until now, the empirical evidence for the Bradley effect rested on individual cases...Now Dan Hopkins has gathered some highly relevant information. In a recent paper he analyzes polling data and election outcomes for 133 gubernatorial and Senate races from 1989 to 2006...
Polls did show a significant Bradley/Wilder effect through the early 1990s, which includes the period when Bradley and Wilder were running for office. However, Hopkins notes that the effect then went away in races from 1996 onward. To quote the study: "Before 1996, the median gap for black candidates was 3.1 percentage points, while for subsequent years it was -0.3 percentage points."

That November, Wang, Nyhan and Silver were proven right.
If you have any doubt, just ask John McCain or Mitt Romney. As David Graham helpfully recalled this week, there was no "hidden McCain vote." As for Romney, he was so certain of victory he prepared no concession speech for Election Night. Ironically underestimating minority turnout, Romney was stunned--and his running mate Paul Ryan "genuinely shocked" --by President Obama's comfortable reelection. Writing in The Resurgent on Thursday, arch-conservative Erick Erickson showed the after-effects of getting mugged by reality:

There is no Trump "Bradley Effect." We have been here before. We were wrong then too...
As I wrote yesterday, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Well, the Trump campaign clearly thinks you are fools. His campaign manager, a noted pollster, wants you to believe that Trump voters are too ashamed to admit they are Trump voters.
Well, establishment Republicans certainly are too ashamed to admit it, but I find more and more very bold Trump supporters.
The fact is that the polls are not wrong and if you believe they are wrong then you are again believing the same lies that Republicans told themselves in 2008 and 2012. And if you believe over and over the same lies, you really are a fool who has no business voting.

Leaving liberal schadenfreude over Erickson's exquisite pain aside, there are plenty of other reasons why Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump must be smoking the drapes.
In late June, Stefan Hankin provided his answer to "why Trump's numbers aren't hiding a reverse Bradley Effect." His conclusion? "our read on the data is that Trump's support is not being severely underestimated and there isn't a "silent majority" unwilling to speak their minds in polls." It's not just that Clinton voters are solid in their support ("81 percent of Clinton voters have a favorable opinion of her, and 88 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Trump"). Undecideds are leaning towards Hillary.

Indeed, 58 percent of undecided voters say that there's less than a 1-in-4 chance that they'll end up voting for Trump, while 47 percent say the same of Clinton. Clearly, these aren't rosy numbers for Clinton, but they don't point to a "silent majority" eager to back Trump in the privacy of the voting booth.

Writing in the New York Times in May, Thomas Edsall wasn't so sure. Citing the Morning Consult findings the previous May, Edsall warned that "in matchups between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump does much better in polls conducted online, in which respondents click their answers on a computer screen, rather than in person-to-person landline and cellphone surveys."

Why is this important? Because an online survey, whatever other flaws it might have, resembles an anonymous voting booth far more than what you tell a pollster does.

But as Edsall's colleague Nate Cohn detailed the following week, "With the primary season effectively over, I think we can say, with some qualifications, that the live-interview surveys were probably more accurate than the online surveys." Simply put, "the actual results just weren't as good for Mr. Trump as the balance of online surveys predicted they would be."

And in general election surveys, the dynamic seems to have flipped: Trump now does better in live-interview polling than online. That could show that Conway's hyped "social desirability bias" is not at work. Or, just as important, it could reflect that online surveys generally allow for more undecided/other/don't know voters. Either way:

It does make it harder to compare the results of the online and live-interview surveys, since there's no way to be sure whether Mr. Trump would still be doing better if there were fewer undecided voters.

(For more on this point, see David Rothschild's article and charts.)
Regardless, Kellyanne Conway faces a major challenge in selling her theory of the "Undercover Trump Voter." As Graham summed it up in The Atlantic, it's not just that plenty of past candidates have made the same mistake.

A host of smart poll analysts have explained in detail why it doesn't look like there's a chunk of voters who are missing or simply lying about who they support. Trump may have a path to victory by winning a tremendous portion of white voters. Sean Trende was arguing long before the Trump phenomenon that there was a large cache of "missing white voters" who a Republican candidate might be able to turn out and ride to victory. But there's no sign that Trump is building the sort of large and sophisticated voter identification and turnout operation it would require to get a large group of infrequent voters to the polls--or even to make sure regular voters show up. On the flip side, it's not all that surprising that a candidate who has gone out of his way to offend many groups of Americans would be struggling in the polls.

Struggling, indeed. As of Wednesday, Nate Silver's 538 model gave Trump only a 17 percent chance of winning the election. Meanwhile, the Washington Post's Philip Bump mocked Donald Trump's supposed outreach to minority voters currently rejecting him by record margins, "Donald Trump is doing great with black and Hispanic voters now, according to polls that don't exist."
But Trump's empty gestures to Hispanic and African-American voters are just that. When The Donald is talking about blacks, he's actually speaking to whites. While his insults, slanders and myths about made-up African-American pathologies stoke the fire of the racial resentment of his devoted base, his ersatz concern for their plight provides cover for those squeamish suburban, melanin-challenged too appalled or embarrassed to declare their support to their fellow Americans. Trump's only hope is that these "hidden" voters, like Kellyanne Conway, will be "moved" by his words.
Moved, that is, to go to the polling place in November and do in private what they won't do in public.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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