When Voters Lie

Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2008

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One of the toughest questions on any poll is whether people are telling the truth. It is a conundrum that looms front and center as voters look ahead to the first U.S. presidential contest that an African-American candidate has a chance to win. With polls showing overwhelming voter support for the idea of a black president, researchers and pollsters are trying to determine who really means it.

Peter Hart, a Democrat on a bipartisan team conducting the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, estimates that 10% of current Democrats and independents who say they support presumed Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama may not be giving a fully honest answer, at least based on their responses to broader questions about race. “This election is exceptionally tricky,” he says.

While most political pollsters say they don’t find large numbers of people lying on polls, they are taking extra precautions. At CBS, pollster Kathleen A. Frankovic says she will ask voters whether they think most people they know would vote for a black candidate—an indirect way to fish for racial bias. John Zogby, president of the polling firm Zogby International, is asking white respondents whether they have ever been to a dinner party where a black person was present. It only takes a handful of people hiding their true opinion to skew poll results, he says: “A small number can loom large.”

At ABC News, polling director Gary Langer says the network is noting the race of the phone interviewer for the first time in its presidential polls. The idea is to see whether the questioner’s race could have an effect on responses by voters. (Though respondents don’t know the race of the interviewer, they might try to guess based on the interviewer’s voice.) All the responses are combined to create a big picture that can show if, for example, white voters tend to tell white interviewers one thing and African-American interviewers another. So far, Mr. Langer says, the race of the interviewer doesn’t appear to have an effect.

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Pollsters look for the “Bradley Effect,” the idea that some white voters are reluctant to say they support a white candidate over a black candidate. The phrase refers to California’s 1982 gubernatorial election, when the late Tom Bradley, a black Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, led in exit polls against white Republican George Deukmejian. Mr. Bradley lost the election. The conclusion: some voters hid their true choice from pollsters. Skeptics say the issue was neither race nor honesty. One theory is that Mr. Deukmejian’s supporters simply didn’t want to participate in polls.

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Questions about polling and race were raised during this year’s presidential primaries. In New Hampshire, polls gave Sen. Obama as much as a 10-percentage-point advantage over Hillary Clinton the day before the primary. Sen. Clinton went on to win the state. Pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, doesn’t blame lying. Instead, he says, some voters who were poorer, less-educated and white may have had less favorable views of African-Americans and were less likely to take surveys. “When polls get it wrong, it’s not because people lied, it’s because the people who turned down the polls have different attitudes than the people who took the polls,” he says.

It may turn out that hidden prejudices don’t significantly affect the outcome of this election. Even so, researchers working on the National Election Studies are drafting extra questions to spot racial bias. The federally funded election studies have been conducted every four years since pollsters got the Dewey-Truman presidential race wrong in 1948. For the November election, researchers are preparing a survey with about 50% more questions on race than in 2004, says Arthur Lupia, a University of Michigan professor and one of the studies’ chief investigators. Many of the questions are aimed at gauging the so-called social desirability bias—a widely studied phenomenon in which people change their answers because they are too embarrassed to say how they really feel.

“For us not to go for it and ask, ‘Look, is it race or not?’ there’d be massive disappointment in our study,” says Dr. Lupia. He plans to include a question asking whether a white or black candidate would be better suited to deal with foreign-policy problems. The answers, matched up with information on respondents’ race, whether they voted and whom they reported voting for, can help analysts determine the extent to which people’s feelings about race affected their votes in the presidential election—even if they say race wasn’t a factor.

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