When it comes to its electoral strategy, it's not often that a presidential campaign gives the game away so easily. This week, new Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway did it twice. Last Sunday, she personally confirmed that Donald Trump's laughable outreach to black voters wasn't intended for African Americans at all. "I live in a white community," Conway explained, "I'm white. I was very moved by his comment." Just three days later, she insisted her losing candidate was actually winning, all thanks to what she branded "the hidden Trump voter in the country." Claiming their numbers are "very significant," Ms. Conway suggested the campaign's "Undercover Trump Voter" project would help these appalled or ashamed suburban whites overcome the social stigma of publicly backing the irredeemably racist Republican nominee:
"Donald Trump performs consistently better in online polling where a human being is not talking to another human being about what he or she may do in the election. It's because it's become socially desirable, if you're a college educated person in the United States of America, to say that you're against Donald Trump."
These supposed undercover Trump voters, in other words, are simply too embarrassed to acknowledge they support The Donald. But while they feel compelled to lie to pollsters now, on November 8 their secret ballots will power Trump to a shocking upset victory.
If this formula sounds vaguely familiar, it should. That's because back in the early 1990s political scientists, pundits, and the press proclaimed the existence of the "Bradley Effect" in which some white voters would lie to survey takers (and even themselves) about supporting a black candidate only to mark the ballot for his or her white opponent on Election Day. The Trump campaign, it now appears, is counting on the reverse dynamic to save it in November.
As you may recall, the Bradley Effect got its name from Tom Bradley, the former mayor of Los Angeles. In his 1982 California gubernatorial race, he consistently led Republican George Deukmejian. As former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder explained four years ago:
On the eve of the election, polls anointed him a prohibitive favorite. But on Election Day, Bradley lost to his white opponent, Republican George Deukmejian."
Post-election analysis showed that white voters had cast ballots for Bradley in far smaller numbers than polling suggested. Meanwhile, the votes of the avowed "undecideds" fell in a cascading wave for Deukmejian.This almost happened to me. Voter surveys immediately before my 1989 election as Virginia governor showed me leading my Republican opponent by almost 10 points. Some showed an even larger lead.
Like David Dinkins in New York City, Wilder only eked out a victory by one-half of a percentage point. But unlike Bradley, Wilder was prepared. "My campaign knew better, however," he pointed out in 2012. "Our internal polls always showed the race to be a statistical dead heat."
Four years later, Donald Trump and his water carriers are hoping for a repeat of the Bradley experience, but in reverse.
Just one day before Trump's campaign manager Conway unveiled her magic unicorn theory of The Donald's path to victory, campaign CEO Stephen Bannon's friends at Breitbart ran this headline: "EXCLUSIVE: Former Tom Bradley Aide Says Secret Trump Voters Similar to 'Bradley Effect.'"
Emerson College Professor Gregory Payne tells Breitbart News that after witnessing the actual Bradley Effect while working on that campaign, he sees the same phenomenon in the 2016 with voters reluctant to tell pollsters they support GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Trump backers began getting their hopes up last year. First, In May 2015 the Pew Research Center published the results of a survey examining "From Telephone to the Web: The Challenge of Mode of Interview Effects in Public Opinion Polls." The study found "that differences in responses by survey mode are fairly common, but typically not large, with a mean difference of 5.5 percentage points and a median difference of five points across the 60 questions." Those deltas were larger on the phone regarding "societal discrimination against several different groups" and online when respondents were asked to "give various political figures a 'very unfavorable' rating." As Pew explained:
The social interaction inherent in a telephone or in-person interview may also exert subtle pressures on respondents that affect how they answer questions. Respondents may feel a need to present themselves in a more positive light to an interviewer, leading to an overstatement of socially desirable behaviors and attitudes and an understatement of opinions and behaviors they fear would elicit disapproval from another person. Previous research has shown that respondents understate such activities as drug and alcohol use and overstate activities like donating to charity or helping other people. This phenomenon is often referred to as "social desirability bias." These effects may be stronger among certain types of people than others, introducing additional bias into the results.
Then in December, Morning Consult did its own research with 2,400 Republicans (one-third interviewed, one-third completed an online survey, and one-third taking an automated phone survey) and concluded "Donald Trump Performs Better in Online Polling." As they summed it up, "Republicans are more likely to say they want Donald Trump in the White House if they are taking a poll online versus in a live telephone interview. And, if you're a highly-educated or engaged Republican voter, it turns out that you're far less likely to tell another human being you want Trump as president." Trump earned the support of 38 percent of online respondents, compared to 36 percent completing the automated phone survey and 32 percent personally interviewed by phone. But The Donald performed much worse with a live interviewer if the respondent had some college education:
Among adults with a bachelor's degree or postgraduate degree, Trump performs about 10 percentage points better online than via live telephone. And, among adults with some college, Trump performs more than 10 percentage points better online. Conversely, Republicans with a high school education or less favored Trump on the phone over online...
What explains Trump's worse numbers on the phone? One possible explanation is "social desirability bias," or in other words, people being reluctant to select Trump when talking to another person because they do not believe it will be viewed as a socially acceptable decision.
That's the very script Kellyanne Conway was offering reporters this week. Republican California Rep. Duncan Hunter was probably thinking along the same lines when he proclaimed in February that "I think you have more Trump supporters in Congress. They just have to come out of the closet, so to speak." And in June, Donald Trump himself proclaimed that when it comes to the Bradley Effect, orange is the new black:
"When I poll, I do fine, but when I run I do much better. In other words, people say I'm not going to say who I'm voting for, don't be embarrassed, I'm not going to say who I'm voting for and then they get it and I do much better, it's like an amazing effect."
Unfortunately for Donald Trump and company, there are a lot of problems with their reverse Bradley Effect dream. As we'll see below, primary contests and general elections are not the same. Recent history provides another red flag, as fans of John McCain and Mitt Romney learned to their great disappointment.
Oh, and one other thing: By most accounts, the Bradley Effect no longer exists.