The Bradley effect and the gay marriage repeal in Maine
The Bradley Effect is a political phenomena named after the African American politician Thomas Bradley who lost the 1982 California governor's race despite being far ahead in the polls.
It was found that people told pollsters they intended to vote for Bradley, because he was African American and they felt it was "the progressive thing to do". But in the privacy of the voting booth, they apparently voted their true "conscience".
Now, some are saying the same effect can be used to explain Maine's repeal of gay marriage:
Interpreting polls with regard to gay issues is always problematic because of the divide between our "socially acceptable" or "politically correct" selves and our private selves. Some activists are feeling burned today after a stinging defeat in Maine that repealed gay marriage. Polling had consistently showed a tied race to marriage equality pulling ahead in the lead. But the outcome went toward repealing the gay marriage legalization.
The gay marriage battle lost in Maine by aproximately 4 %. As Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight writes, that final total is not reflective of where most activists thought the race was heading. Silver had said that he himself thought there was only a 30 percent chance of marriage equality failing in Maine. So what went wrong?
We'll know more in the coming days, but at first glance it appears that there could be a Bradley Effect at play in the polling.
The Bradley Effect was a term coined after the 1982 California Governor's race where an African-American candidate named Tom Bradley lost to a white candidate, despite being ahead in most polls. It's a term that generally refers to the fact that in polling questions, people will typically answer how they think the pollster or society wants them to answer, rather than how they really feel (and more importantly, how they intend to vote).
In the case of marriage equality, it could be that people don't want to be labeled as homophobic or bigoted, so they say to pollsters that they support marriage equality. But then when it comes time to vote, they actually cast a contrary ballot.
Was a Bradley Effect at play in Maine? It's too early to tell. And as Nate Silver notes, there could be many more issues surrounding the marriage equality vote in Maine, from a large rural vs. urban divide, to the fact that in an off-year election more anti-gay folks were motivated to head to the polls.
Before Tuesday's vote on marriage in Maine, CQPolitics ran this pieceexploring whether the polls were understating popular support for the "people's veto." As it turned out, they were. One of the more interesting findings: the poll (pdf) that showed the most support for marriage redefinition repeal used an automated message, not live interviewers. This raises the possibility of a "Bradley effect" for gay marriage, where people who believe marriage is between a man and a woman are reluctant to share their real views with pollsters.
Like the overall Maine result, this cuts both ways in the same-sex marriage debate. It suggests that overall public opposition to same-sex marriage may be understated in national polls, raising questions of how much the recent shifts reflect rising support or just the public's sense of what the socially acceptable position is. It also raises questions about marriage polling in places like Massachusetts and New York, where some surveys have shown plurality support for same-sex marriage (this has been true in Massaachusetts for years). Gay rights groups have nevertheless been reluctant to see the issue put on the ballot there, perhaps for good reason.
On the other hand, if voicing an opinion that less than a decade ago wasn't terribly controversial -- the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman -- is now something people are afraid to say to strangers, that doesn't bode well for traditional marriage's long-term prospects. It suggests that the bandwagon effect could work, putting opposition to same-sex marriage in the closet or reducing it to the opinion that dare not speak its name.