The Wilder Effect, R.I.P.

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After Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire primary, the punditocracy (including some pollsters) started speculating about the return of the "Wilder Effect," a.k.a. the "Bradley Effect." Named, respectively, for black gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and California, the Effects occur when white voters tell a pollster or exit pollster that they're voting for a black candidate, too embarrassed to admit that they voted for the white. In 1989, Douglas Wilder nearly lost his bid for governor of Virginia even though exit polls showed him winning by close to 10 points.

This year now-Richmond Mayor Wilder endorsed Barack Obama, and Obama won a historic landslide in the commonwealth. Final polls estimated that Obama would win by about 18 points. He won by 28 points. Exit polls estimated that 48 percent of white voters (a majority of men, a minority of women) went for Obama. The results basically prove that case. Look at the county-by-county map of Virginia, which shows a wave of Obama blueish-purple washing over the state and breaking in the southwest, at Bedford County. And look at some of the counties Obama won. Highland County, which borders West Virginia, is 99 percent white, and it went 54-45 for Obama. Floyd County, deep in Appalachia, is about 97 percent white, and it went 49-48 for Obama. Virginia has 11 congressional districts, all but two of them with white majorities, and Obama only lost one of them, the ultra-conservative 9th, which looks more like eastern Tennessee than the rest of Virginia.

I tried to tramp down dirt on the "Wilder Effect" last year, when it was pretty obvious that polls were accurate in six white-versus-black statewide races, and I was a little worried when the theory resurfaced this year. Could it surface again in a heated general election? Well, maybe. But not in Democratic primaries anymore. Barack Obama has read the rites and exorcised that ghost.

NEXT: Leaving Wayne's World

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  1. David, remember this is a Democratic Primary. The Wilder Effect won’t truly be dead until we see what the general election is like.

  2. If you think about it, the Wilder Effect is something that would happen in a transitional period: when there are enough people who are prejucided enough to vote against a candidate for his race, but when there is enough anti-racism in society to make people want to conceal that prejudice.

    I suspect there was a Wilder Effect at one point, but it’s dead now. At least, as you say, in Democratic primaries.

  3. It seems to me this proves nothing. Considering how repulsive HRC is, it could just be that all of the people who told pollsters they were going to vote for Obama really wanted to vote for Obama. Maybe with a weaker black candidate or a stronger white one, you will still have some people saying they’ll vote for the black guy so the pollster “doesn’t think they’re racist” while really favoring the white candidate. Mickey Kaus speculated that the reason Obama does better in caucuses is all the liberal white hipsters want to show their neighbors how “unracist” they are by publicly voting for Obama. In primaries, when the vote is private those same types vote for HRC. The reality is polling is always going to have a bullshit effect, even if its just from people like me who lie on general principle.

  4. In a McCain vs Obama battle you might see an interesting twist. There might be many Republicans who will tell pollsters they will vote for (R)-McCain, but actually cast their secret ballot for Obama because they really don’t like McCain, but just aren’t willing to admit in public they will vote for a Democrat.

  5. Well, those types in Virginia and Maryland ended up voting for Obama. The only group HRC won here was white women (barely) and Southwest Virginians.

  6. Could this be the start of the Hillary Effect? Where more progressives/Democrats say they will vote for Hillary than actually will?

  7. If the election pitted a viable white male candidate against Obama (which it obviously will not) I bet you would see some of that effect.

  8. Mickey Kaus speculated that the reason Obama does better in caucuses is all the liberal white hipsters want to show their neighbors how “unracist” they are by publicly voting for Obama. In primaries, when the vote is private those same types vote for HRC.

    Mickey Kaus, then, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Hillary has won among older voters, women, and blue-collar voters. She has never won “white hipsters,” or even come close to doing so.

  9. ahem … Obama won aN historic etc … /grammar nazi

  10. Virginia’s 9th District is so ultra-conservative that we’ve been sending a Democrat to Congress for 20 years. And Floyd County, while very white, is a strange mix of farmers, back to the land hippies, and professionals from Roanoke and Blacksburg.

  11. ahem … Obama won aN historic etc … /grammar nazi

    Correct only if you pronounce “historic” like a Frenchman. In the rest of the world, we like to keep our vowels vowels and our consonants don’t AC/DC.

  12. Andy,
    Unless you’re a cockney tosser, it’s a historic.

  13. Didn’t Paul poll slightly better in some states than his final vote results?

    I guess there are people out there who pretend to like freedom but go neocon all the way in the voting booth?

  14. Unless you’re a cockney tosser, it’s a historic.

    No, actually it’s *an* historic. One of the many little oddities of the English language.

    BTW, how cool is it that Gene Wilder has a political phenomenon named after him?

  15. A note about the two example counties:

    IIRC, Floyd county is known for its marijuana growing operations. It and Highland both have significant ex-flower-child-commune types who settled in the 60s and 70s. That explains much of their deviation from the SE VA norm.

    I note most of the counties known for their moonshine production went for Hillary.

  16. If the election pitted a viable white male candidate against Obama (which it obviously will not) I bet you would see some of that effect.

    Why is it an outrage when whites vote in solidarity with their guy, but not when blacks vote in solidarity with theirs?

    And, speaking of the actual Wilder effect (black guy gets better polling results than voting results), has anyone done a similar analysis for other racial groups?

  17. Yes, it is *an* historic, just like it is *an* herb.

  18. Why is it an outrage when whites vote in solidarity with their guy, but not when blacks vote in solidarity with theirs?

    I consider *both* lamentable. I don’t like the fact that Obama sweeps black urban areas any more than Clinton rules in the sticks.

    PS. It’s “a” historical. Look it up in an American dictionary.

  19. Why is it an outrage when whites vote in solidarity with their guy, but not when blacks vote in solidarity with theirs?

    Because voting to maintain a system of racial privilege is worse than voting to demolish one. On a symbolic level, that is what people voting for Obama because he’s the black guy are doing – voting to change the unbroken string of 43 white Christian men in the presidency.

    I’d find it lamentable if people kept doinig this after the first couple of black presidents, but voting for the First Black President as a tie-breaker isn’t so bad.

  20. It’s an herb because the “h” in herb is silent. The “h” in historic isn’t (in American English).

  21. “Yes, it is *an* historic, just like it is *an* herb.”

    The “h” is silent in “herb” and therefore requires an “an” but the “h” in “historic” is not silent and therefore requires an “h” in front of.

  22. Because voting to maintain a system of racial privilege is worse than voting to demolish one.

    What system of racial privilege? We’ve had blacks in every office except President and Vice President.

    I’d find it lamentable if people kept doinig this after the first couple of black presidents, but voting for the First Black President as a tie-breaker isn’t so bad.

    Except we aren’t talking about racial bloc voting just for Obama. We’re talking about racial bloc voting for nearly every non-insane black candidate that comes along (Keyes being the exception that proves the rule), and some of the insane ones (Cynthia McKinney, anyone?). I don’t think that’s healthy, and I think that it reinforces and perpetuates racial division.

  23. “Didn’t Paul poll slightly better in some states than his final vote results?”

    “I guess there are people out there who pretend to like freedom but go neocon all the way in the voting booth?”

    Or it could be that exit polls aren’t that accurate.

  24. What system of racial privilege? We’ve had blacks in every office except President and Vice President.

    Well, I would say such people are looking at the offices of President and Vice President. They are rather important, you know.

    I don’t think that’s healthy, and I think that it reinforces and perpetuates racial division. I think racial division is reinforced and perpetrated by actual racial division, and feelings are a consequence of that. Telling people not to think about the elephant in the room isn’t going to remove the beast; removing the elephant, on the other hand, will get people to stop thinking about it.

  25. R C, did you hear anybody getting excited about Rudy Guiliani being the Second Catholic President? Or about Catholics voting as a bloc for him? Or for any non-insane Catholic candidate?

    They used to. They sure did.

    But now they don’t. Getting black people into this or that position will cease to be a big deal in people’s minds when getting black people into such positions actually is not a big deal.

  26. And I will note that there was no effort made to wave fingers under the noses of Catholics and tell them “Shame on you for voting for the Catholic!” The change in opinions happened all by itself, once the objective reality a Catholic president being elected came to pass.

  27. Perhaps it’s just karma, but I found it deliciously ironic that a black candidate proved far more acceptable than a Mormon candidate in light of his church’s long history of official racism.

  28. I think Obama may be benefiting from the Katie Couric effect. She wasn’t afraid to ask Hillary those hard-hitting questions we’ve all been wondering about, like whether she pops vitamins or not, and got Hillary to admit that she makes sure to scrub her hands with Purell after any contact with the citizenry.

  29. Named, respectively, for black gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and California, the Effects occur when white voters tell a pollster or exit pollster that they’re voting for a black candidate, too embarrassed to admit that they voted for the white.

    What does it say about the status quo of collective white-guilt when “white voters are too embarassed to admit they are voting for a white”? This observation about the shame of whites is written as if it is just a routine state of the collective American mind.

    What would be the reaction from readers and journalists if pollsters determined that “white voters were too ashamed to admit they voted for a black”?

    If you wonder how a patently racist policy such as affirmative action has become entrenched you need look no further than the concept of “the Wilder effect”. To add insult to irony, the Wilder effect does not even exist as proved by BO’s primary voting results.

  30. As a commenter above notes, the Ninth District is represented by a Democrat (one of just two white Democrats in the Virginia delegation), and a fairly liberal one at that.

    “An historic” and “a historic” are both acceptable. “An” can precede a word beginning with “h” if the first syllable was unstressed, although this practice is fading. In past centuries, “an” could precede any “h” word. Eighteenth-century people said things like “an hero.” That has completely faded from standard usage.

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