Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Polling Away?

By Shawn Healy
Senator Obama's separation from Senator John McCain in both national and battleground state polls is well-documented, and the cause arguably attributable to the economic jitters that have gripped the nation, even the world. Heading into the general election, the odds were stacked sharply against McCain to begin with given the unpopular president he is tethered to by political affiliation, an already sagging economy, and public dissatisfaction with the conduct of the separate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chaos on Wall Street has firmly gripped Main Street in recent weeks, and voters may be more willing to take a chance on Obama given their overall dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Public opinion, at least in the context of campaigns, can dart rapidly in one direction or the other, so this election is by no means a forgone conclusion. One presidential debate remains this Wednesday, and McCain will search once more for a "game-changer," however elusive this might be.

Three weeks of ads in targeted states will also provide additional contrasts between the candidates, and often resort to negative attacks. To date, McCain's attempts to link Obama to former Weather Underground domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and voter fraud perpetrated by ACORN have fallen mostly on deaf ears, but expect the campaign to continue to raise doubts about the junior Illinois senator.

Also, both campaigns are already turning to their so-called "ground games," the get-out-the-vote operations in swing states that focus on delivering the parties' respective bases to the polls on Election Day, or earlier (absentee balloting).

Poll numbers may move in response to a decisive debate performance by one candidate or the other, or a notable gaffe in this same environment. Attack ads may gain traction and push away undecided voters from one candidate to the other, or to sit out the election altogether. One party's 72-hour plan during the final three days of the campaign may defy so-called momentum and the suggestions of last-minute polls (I witnessed this myself in New Hampshire this year when Senator Hillary Clinton pulled off a narrow win over Obama when polls were suggesting a decisive win for the latter candidate).

A couple of poll-related phenomena also must be considered at this late hour of the 23-month campaign for president. One, the so-called "Bradley effect," named after the former Mayor of Los Angeles who lost a close election for governor despite polls predicting victory. Bradley was African-American, and the theory suggests that lower income voters overstate their support for black candidates in interviews with pollsters.

The academic community is split over the Bradley effect's continued relevance given that is surfaced in 1982 and Americans' views about race have arguably progressed in the intervening decades. Obama's candidacy itself is a testament to this, including his better-than-expected performances in Wisconsin and Virginia. However, he fared worse than anticipated in New Hampshire and California, and the primary electorate is vastly different than that of a general election.

Those who believe the Bradley effect lingers argue that lower income white voters are less likely to respond to pollsters questions to begin with, perhaps biasing the complexion of existing samples. Moreover, differences surface depending upon who is asking the questions. Individuals are more likely to express support for African-American candidates if and when they are questioned by a black survey administrator.

Others express skepticism, suggesting that polling techniques are increasingly refined nowadays, predicting the loss of African-American congressman Harold Ford in the 2006 race for Senate and the victory of Deveal Patrick as Governor of Massachusetts in the same year. Moreover, the Bradley effect is more likely to play a decisive role when an election has been "racialized," as wedge issues like affirmative action and welfare enter the fray. Although Reverend Wright has not yet been put to bed, this election is focused on the economy, gas prices, and health care, and to a lesser extent the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

A second variable to keep on our collective radar screens in the closing days of this election is the bandwagon effect. This occurs when one candidate assumes a decisive lead in the polls, inviting voters to climb aboard. Should Obama continue to build upon his narrow, but widening lead, we may witness a run toward the Illinois senator that results in a decisive victory in the popular vote and a blowout in the Electoral College. If, however, the race returns to its previous dynamic, a nail biter within the polls' margins of error, the bandwagon effect exits stage left, and a long night of election returns looms.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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