Sunday, October 19, 2008

Polls and Polling In the 2008 Presidential Election

What Students Need to Know about the Bradley Effect, the Cell Phone Effect, and the Science of Polling

With two weeks before the 2008 election, it might be a good time to clue the students in on polling. Don't make the mistake of thinking that they understand the topic. As the major networks and most of the papers and weekly magazines concentrate on election outcome projections, it can become very confusing for the kids. Actually, at times, it becomes very confusing for most adults.

If you are using the Hippocampus curriculum, "Polls and Polling" is actually located in the Executive Branch Unit. This was originally done because in non-election years, the use of polls to gauge public opinion fits nicely with the policy development aspect of the White House. As a matter of fact, I have often used the PBS Frontline "The Clinton Years" video to develop the ideas of polling. (On this site is a transcript of the video in case you don't want to invest in the DVD.) The Chapter entitled "1995-1996 defeat/victory" sports a discussion with Dick Morris which is an excellent linkage tools for students to see how polls are used, or misused, by government. Morris, a Republican pollster and political analyst, joined Clinton's administration resulting in the condemning charge that President Clinton governed by poll.

Most of the college level textbooks also have adequate chapters or sections on the topic. The Edwards/Wattenberg/Lineberry Government in America, for example, has a solid discussion on polling in the chapter entitled "Public Opinion and Political Action". Go to the Hippocampus Advanced Placement Government site and click on Textbooks. You can find the page number for the topic in the NROC recommended books.

This being said, the question the students are throwing at me this year is, "What is the Bradley Effect?" They have heard the term in conjunction with news stories on the election polls, but don't understand the concept. In case you are fuzzy on this issue, the Bradley or Bradley-Wilder Effect is a reference to the 1982 California gubernatorial election. Tom Bradley, the black LA mayor had double digit leads in the polls which evaporated on election day. Bradley lost to George Duekmajian bringing about the idea that white voters will tell pollsters that they will vote for a black candidate, but will change their minds at the ballot box. Of course the application this election lies with Barack Obama's apparent lead with two weeks remaining. Does the Bradley Effect exist today? A good article to introduce the students to this concept is found on the NPR web site. You can either play the audio or print the transcript. I shared the audio with my students just the other day and it resulted in a very lively class discussion.

If the Bradley Effect still exists (and the above article argues it does not), it may be off-set by the Cell Phone Effect. This concept centers on the way polls are conducted; that is, through the use of land line phone numbers. The problem with this falls in the hundreds of thousands of young potential voters who are cell phone owners only. These voters being excluded from the polls could skew the reliability assuming of course that many of these youth are Obama supporters. A fairly new piece of research on this was done by the Pew Research Center. I copied part of this article and most of the graphics and had a lively discussion with this information also.

As if elections were not tricky enough to teach, technology is rearing its head and making the complicated much more complicated. At any rate, I strongly suggest taking a quick look at the polling process with the students and discussing these subjects. A polling question has not appeared on the Free Response section of the AP Government and Politics Exam for as long as I can remember. Who knows??? Until next time....

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