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What is the Bradley Effect?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Bradley Effect is a phenomenon characterized by the tendency of non-white political candidates to perform better in opinion polls than they do in actual elections when they are running against white candidates. Most specifically, this effect often strikes black politicians, although it can just as easily affect Hispanics and other minorities. This interesting phenomenon has been a topic of intense study by pollsters, political analysts, and others, and there are several theories used to explain the Bradley effect, which is sometimes also known as the Wilder Effect.

The concept is named for Tom Bradley, an African-American man who ran for the office of Governor of California in 1982. In polls leading up to the election, Bradley had a clear lead, and numerous media outlets boldly projected that he would win the election. On election night, however, he lost to the Republican candidate, much to the puzzlement of the Democratic party and many Californians. The same thing happened in Virginia in 1989 in another gubernatorial race, and numerous other instances of the Bradley effect have been documented at various points in American history.

One of the primary explanations for this phenomenon is racial. Pollsters have suggested that voters may not want to admit to planning to vote against a black candidate, because they fear being perceived as racist, especially when the pollster is black. Polling organizations have also suggested that the Bradley Effect could be caused by undecided voters, many of whom lean in a conservative direction on election night.

This effect appears to be diminishing in American society, for a variety of reasons, but it is still a present and interesting issue. Researchers are curious to learn about the mechanics of this phenomenon in the hopes of learning more about American politics and cultural beliefs. The rise of minority candidates in the United States will undoubtedly, and somewhat regrettably, provide more instances of the Bradley Effect, as Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities attempt to break into American politics on the state and national level.

In 2008, an interesting reversal of the Bradley Effect occurred in Iowa, when black Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama fared better than expected against the white candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the caucuses of that state. Some political pundits suggested that because caucuses are public, some voters might have felt pressured into supporting Obama out of a desire to appear liberal and open-minded in front of their neighbors.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By GreenWeaver — On Apr 18, 2011

Anon21003- I don't know the answer to your question, but I did want to say that I think that presidential polls are often really wrong and sometimes it just has to do with other things than the Bradley effect.

While I understand the Bradley effect can skew polling data in favor of a certain candidate incorrectly this is not the only reason why that would happen. For example, in the Presidential election of President George W.Bush and Senator John Kerry the exit polling data showed that Kerry would beat President Bush by a 5% margin.

The results were the opposite and President Bush was reelected. I think the reason this problem occurred in the polling data was the possibility that Democratic voters were oversampled and that is why they showed that Kerry was going to win. While this situation did not have a Bradley effect it did have an inaccurate poll that happens all of the time.

With the next upcoming Presidential Race who knows if there will be a Bradley effect, but I have learned to take all polling data with a grain of salt.

By anon21003 — On Nov 08, 2008

What is the difference between the sea and the ocean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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