Time To Move Beyond "The Bradley Effect?"

This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.
Sometimes I feel like a broken record. Despite all the claims that Americans have moved beyond race, we still want to talk about race!

Why else was "race" practically the first explanation offered in New Hampshire this year when pre-primary polls failed to predict the outcome? Was it really the resurrection of the so-called "Bradley Effect" from all the way back in 1982?

Why else did people "forget" (or disregard) that in 2006 pre-election polls in two state-wide races involving black candidates showed NO indication of this "effect?"

Why is it that we keep coming back to this theme? CBS Sunday Morning, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all had stories about race and polling just three weeks before the presidential election.

We've gone through this topic many times, yet we still seem to worry about people lying to pollsters, or that black interviewers will get different answers from respondents than white interviewers do. Some of us even believe that every person who has yet to declare a preference publicly must, somehow, be motivated by race.

What does this say about Americans? Many people, clearly, would rather talk about this than about other issues. Some people may believe it outweighs even the troubled state of the American economy, which our polls clearly show as the issue that voters say matters most to them.

A recent CBS News Poll may shed a little light on why we talk about race so much. We asked registered voters to answer this pair of questions: "Is there anyone you know who supports Barack Obama mainly because Obama is black?" and "Is there anyone you know who does not support Barack Obama mainly because Obama is black?"

The first analysis of the data suggests that - like so many other candidate characteristics -- race is a wash, with just about as many voters saying one thing as saying the other. Twenty four percent say they know someone supporting Obama because of his race, 22 percent say they know someone voting against Obama because of it. And this is not necessarily determined by people's own race: 23 percent of white voters say they know someone voting for Obama because of race, and 20 percent know someone who will vote against him for that reason.

But what we find out when we look more closely at the questions and responses is that we are more likely to want to ascribe racial motivation to people who disagree with us than to recognize it in those with whom we agree. So among people currently supporting Obama, just 18 percent say they know someone supporting him because of his race. But 25 percent of the same people say they know someone not supporting him for racial reasons.

John McCain voters see the opposite: 20 percent say they know someone voting against Obama for racial reasons (about the same percentage of Obama voters who know people supporting Obama for that reason). But 33 percent say they know someone voting for him because of race.

The difference is even more stark when we compare white voters who support Obama with those who support McCain. Thirteen percent of white Obama voters know someone voting for Obama because of race, 23 percent know someone voting against him for that reason. McCain voters are mostly white (African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic), so little changes when we look at white McCain voters: 19 percent know someone voting against Obama because of race, 32 percent know someone voting for him for that reason.

Notice that our poll questions did not ask about people in general - they asked only about people "you know." The responses suggest that there could be a lot more racial attribution taking place. When people start assessing the motivations of those who disagree with them - people whom they may not know personally - they may be even more likely to see racial factors at work, and may not be able to imagine that strangers have any reasons for making their electoral decisions this year other than race.

Obviously, some Americans do have and do express racial fears and racially-based opinions. Some will admit - even to pollsters -- that race influences their vote. We know that in exit polls conducted during the Democratic primaries this year, about one in five respondents said that race factored in their voting decision. They didn't necessarily vote much differently from people who resembled them demographically but said race didn't matter. However, sometimes they did, and in the expected direction: blacks citing race as a factor were more likely to support Obama, whereas whites citing race were more likely to vote for Clinton.

One way of revealing racial fears is to ask if people expect that one presidential administration's policies would favor one racial group to the disadvantage of another. In July 16 percent of white voters said they thought that the policies of an Obama presidency would "favor blacks over whites." Suspicions go in both directions - 32 percent of African-Americans believed that a John McCain administration would "favor whites over blacks." And feelings like that do enter into some people's voting calculus. About one in four whites supporting John McCain - 23 percent -- said Obama's policies would favor people of his own race, not theirs.

We have been able to ask about race in many ways this year, and voters have answered our questions. Maybe we've finally reached a point where that's no longer necessary, and a time in our nation's history when we can finally end our obsession with race and polls.