Tuesday 12 November 2019

The Bradley Effect and the Spiral of Silence

Patricia Casey
Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey

The country is awash with opinion polls just now. Some related to the forthcoming referendum on Same Sex Marriage. Others are focussed on the General Election in 2016. Increasingly the term "Bradley Effect" is being discussed. The psychology of voters and pollsters is fascinating but is largely unknown and unexplored in this country.

Tom Bradley was the long-standing mayor of Los Angeles. He was of African-American descent. In 1982 he put himself up for re-election and a white Republican, of Armenian descent, challenged him. In the lead up to election day, Bradley held a comfortable lead over his rival in opinion polls. The exit polls on the election day also told the same story - Bradley would win.

The San Francisco Chronicle led with the story in its early editions. As the count progressed red-faced editors were forced to change the story when it became apparent that Bradley might lose, and lose he did.

Analysis of the poll afterwards was instructive in showing that Caucasians were less likely to vote for Bradley at the ballot box than they indicated in opinion polls and those who were undecided in the opinion polls voted for the white man on election-day.

In a gubernatorial election in Virginia two years later, another African American, L. Douglas Wilder saw his 9pc lead cut to less than 0.5pc resulting in a bare win. Political analysts believed the discrepancies between the opinion polls and the election result was because white voters were wary of indicating their true views lest they be viewed as racists.

Along with other examples of this race-related trend in the US, there are recent examples of a reverse Bradley Effect in some states with black candidates faring better in the polls and defying predictions over white candidates. Pew Research analysts (Anthony Greenwald and Behtany Albertson) examined the "Bradley" and "Reverse Bradley Effects" and noted that while Bradley and Wilder were running in Democrat states and were expected to win, the black candidates who won against the odds in other states were standing in Republican states and expected to lose.

They concluded that the results were not about race or party but about social inclusion and social desirability. Both the Bradley and Reverse Bradley Effects describe people's desire to blend in with what appears "normal" as defined by local sentiment. So when answering a question in an opinion poll Greenwald and Albertson concluded that responses are given that appear superficially acceptable while in the secrecy of the ballot box their true opinion emerges.

What about other cultures where race is less divisive and where society is less polarised? In Britain a similar phenomenon has been identified where party affiliation has become instrumental. This is termed the "Shy Tory Effect". It became obvious in the 1992 general election where the Labour Party had a slim lead over the Conservatives, yet the Conservatives won their fourth successive election with a lead of 7.6pc over Labour.

Two recent referenda in this country also confounded the political establishment by the results. The Children's Rights poll in 2012 was carried by a margin of 57pc to 42pc but with an invisible "No" campaign and all the political parties, the media and stake holder groups urging a "Yes" vote. Opinion polls put the "No" side at less than 10pc in the lead up to the vote. The referendum on abolishing the Senate showed all the signs of being carried until the week before the poll and it was lost. Why were the opinion polls so wrong?

Are people lying to opinion pollsters? Are they simply being mischievious or do they mislead the pollsters so that an expectation of victory is created in Machiavellian hope of generating apathy? Are they just simply answering in a knee-jerk fashion because of lack of information?

A possible explanation for the mismatch between opinion polls and one's private view expressed in the ballot box, comes from the insights of political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1974) in her essay The Spiral of Silence: a theory of public opinion, followed by a book in 1993. Both have become classics in explaining the role of the mass media in directing popular opinion. According to this theory people have a quasi-statistical sense that deters them from voicing an opinion if they believe themselves to be in the minority because they fear being isolated. Their perspective, on what constitutes the majority opinion, comes through the lens of the mass media. This theory applies only to moral and opinion issues, almost always of a controversial nature, and not to matters that can be proven right or wrong by the facts.

According to Noelle-Neumann the spiral is only broken and the silence is terminated when a highly educated, affluent or cavalier minority who disregard public opinion, speaks out. Thus the spiral is time-limited but breaking it requires the courage to challenge the status quo.

The psychology of opinion poll responses and the role of social desirability bias in determining significant aspects of voting trends is a most interesting area of research. The Bradley and Reverse Bradley Effects have clearly been operating in polls in this country in the last few years. While new to us, their study in an Irish context would make for stimulating discussion. The findings might also inform those considering new political initiatives in the next few years.

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