Fear of a Bradley Planet


This slow-news-day Politico story on how we might have our first early election night since 1996 makes one extremely wrong assumption.

The quandary is highlighted by Virginia, a state that has not voted Democratic for president since 1964 but where Obama is now leading in polls. There is no realistic McCain electoral college strategy that does not depend on winning the Old Dominion.

If it is clear on Nov. 4 that Obama has won in Virginia by the time polls there close at 7 p.m.—it will still be daylight west of the Mississippi—the obvious conclusion will be that Obama is headed to the White House.

Not quite. Remember, the "Bradley effect," in the collective mind of pundits, is based on the results of two elections. The first was the 1982 race for governor of California. The second was the 1989 race for governor of… Virginia. And it wasn't the pre-election day polls that were off. It was the exit polls. From that week's reports:

In Virginia, Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. acknowledged making a fundamental error in the way it conducted its Election Day polling. Its workers stopped voters outside polling places and asked them face to face how they had voted, rather than following the more widely accepted practice of having them fill out "secret ballots" and drop them in a box. All the New York polls used this method.

Brad Coker, Mason-Dixon's president, said that in hindsight he thought some voters might have been reluctant to admit to a poll taker that they had not voted for the black candidate, L. Douglas Wilder. The organization's Election Day polls gave a 10-point lead to Mr. Wilder, the Democrat, and at least three television stations reported the figures right after the polls closed and declared Mr. Wilder the winner. Today it appears that Mr. Wilder did defeat J. Marshall Coleman, the Republican, but by only one quarter of a percentage point.

Networks aren't going to make a call when the only evidence they have is exit polling. And they shouldn't. I don't think the Bradley Effect still exists in any important way (especially in Virginia, which has lost tens of thousands of dead Dixiecrats and gained hundreds of thousands of youngish moderates since 1989), but if it does exist at all, it's in the answers voters give to smiling interns with clipboards who confront them outside the polling booth.

That said, exit polling for this year's New Hampshire primary, which even people like David Gergen claim as the evidence for a persistent Bradley Effect, reflected the close Clinton-Obama result. I was at Ron Paul's election night party at 7:58 p.m. when a friend texted that a Democratic targeting firm had Obama 39/Hillary 39 in its final exit poll. They were two points off. Election night anchors will have many more sources at their disposal, but whether the exits show a McCain comeback or an Obama landslide they really shouldn't be able to call it until the west coast is done voting. (If Obama swept every state he's leading in now, he'd barely get to 270 before California comes in.)

We probably will know that the Democrats have held the House and Senate by 8 p.m. ET, althought I doubt the status of the supermajority will be known until mid-week.