History Effect > Bradley Effect?



I saw this photo of voters lining up this morning at  Andrew Sullivan’s blog and realized it was not only relevant to this post, but also taken at our local polling place. (Photo: voting at Martin Luther King Jr Library in Washington DC, by Brendan Smialowski/Getty.)


Finally, Election Day is finally here! It’s been a long haul. This campaign has been going on since — well, in some ways since the Republican Convention in 2004 when Bush was up for reelection and people like Rudy Giuliani were starting to gear up for 2008. It’s hard to believe that I spent the Fourth of July with Joe Biden campaigning at a barbecue in Iowa and watching Hillary and Bill Clinton making their first joint campaign appearance at the state fairgrounds — back in July 2007 that is!

Much has been made in this campaign season about the “Bradley effect” — the phenomenon in which opinion polls overstate the support for an African American candidate because people are afraid to tell pollsters they’re not voting for the black guy for fear of looking racist. Pollsters have been arguing back and forth for the past few months about whether such an effect exists, whether it ever existed, and whether it will result in Obama underperforming what the polls predict.

But as I read various accounts of voters’ experiences at the polling places today, one think is striking. So many of them say they wanted to go vote to make sure they are “part of history.” Suppose they like the candidate and be inclined to vote for him but have other demands on their time, or they may be sitting on the fence, how much more likely are they to turn out to vote in order to be a “part of history?” I haven’t seen anyone try to quantify this. I’ve heard some African Americans put it in slightly different terms: that they wanted to be sure to vote for Obama so that they could tell their grandchildren that when they had the chance to vote for the first black president, they showed up. It’s not just frustration with the Bush years that is driving record numbers to the polls today. The sense of history is playing a role too.

I have a theory about American politics: that you can learn more about how voters interpret the candidates at a visceral level standing in the room during the Iowa caucuses and listening to people try to persuade their neighbours to vote for their candidate — than you can learn from listening to any analyst at any other point in the election. Back in 2004, I had a sense pretty early on that the somewhat obscure senator from North Carolina named John Edwards was going to make a big showing despite his lack of national security experience in an election which was largely about national security. On caucus night I stood in a firehouse in rural Iowa and heard people boil down the argument for the millionaire lawyer without a word about policy, but just an heartfelt plea: “He worked his way through law school!” It was said with passion by blue collar workers to one another at a time when Howard Dean was the big story and the union workers were expected to go for Dick Gephardt, but it was Edwards and his campaign talk of economic hardship and the “two Americas” that had touched a nerve. Edwards won the caucus I was on and became John Kerry’s running mate.

At the caucus I attended in Iowa last January, the Joe Biden supporters were making arguments to their neighbours about his foreign policy ideas; the Kucinich people were talking policy; the Hillary people talked about her health care plan and shouted “Do it for your daughters!” But what the Obama people said was qualitatively different, and it seemed to explain why there were twice as many of them as supporters of other candidates. They turned to the undecided voters and said: “Are you going to just stand there or do you want to be a PART OF SOMETHING?”

Sure, there may very will be a race-related”Bradley Effect” tonight. But I wonder whether the race-related History Effect might be even bigger.


History Effect > Bradley Effect?

  1. Luiza

    Do you know why waiting times to vote are so long? I don’t think I have had to wait more than 20 mins to vote but I am reading stories that say people are waiting up to six hours to vote which seems insane to me.

    Do they have fewer polling places than we set up in Canada or is there more of a rigmarole when voting in US? I find it fascinating that people stand around for hours to vote because that would test my patience.

  2. jwl – In the Great Republic people are voting for everything from dog-catcher to President as well as any number of local referenda and other initiatives and plebicites. Therefore it’s not just a simple task of going to the polling station, showing your id and marking your X in the voting booth and dropping your ballot in the ballot box.

  3. Thanks Clarence. I knew they voted for more things than we do, tho I forgot about the various ‘local referenda and other initiatives’, but I assumed more polling stations would be added to try and reduce waiting times. No wonder only about 50% of Americans bother to vote.

  4. I had been wondering that as well and the explanation above seems legit. I thank you, Clarence!

  5. Clarence nails a big part of the reason for long lines in the U.S., but I think it’s also about not just the many things that are being voted on, but the WAY votes are cast. While voting machines (electronic or manual) and punch cards etc… may seem easy and efficient, I rather suspect they’re much more daunting (especially to older voters, who vote in numbers disproportionate to their share of the population) than simply marking many X’s.

    It almost seems counter-intuitive, but I’d guess that if people were given a really long ballot and a pencil (an elongated form of what we get in Canada, with all the many elected positions and ballot initiatives added) it’d actually move faster than using touch screens and levers (which some people have to figure out, taking more time to vote).

    I could be totally wrong though.

  6. Actually in NYC this week and I saw line-ups today even in this non-battleground state. I think you hit it Luiza people (me included and I can’t vote) are caught up in this and I think all of the progressive electorate here wants to be part of this and that means voting.


    This may be a tough pill for you and other CPC supporters to swallow but we have Elections Canada which does a superb uniform job of running elections coast to coast. They are the gold standard ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. The US has 50 seperate elections going on with seperate rules = chaos. These systems are all adjusting (at different rates) to the much larger turnouts especially in the close states.

    That said I am very jealous of how much life has been breathed into this creaky old democracy…as Leonard Cohen sang 15 years ago…”Democracy is [finally] coming to the USA.”

Sign in to comment.