Little White Lies and Harold Ford
Taegan Goddard points to a subscriber-only WSJ article saying there may be bad news for Democrats in Tennessee:
The Wall Street Journal uses Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race to explore the “15% lie” — “when whites, bowing to societal pressure, tell pollsters they intend to vote for a black candidate but fail to do so in the voting booths. Indeed, several political experts believe that despite Harold Ford Jr.’s strong showing in the polls, some whites may desert him at the last minute.”
While I’ve never heard of a 15% rule, the phenomenon of people telling pollsters what they think they want to hear, especially on race issues, is well known. One hopes that the phenomenon is rapidly diminishing, though, as the generation that grew up during the Jim Crow era is replaced with younger cohorts for whom racial segregation is merely a historical oddity. Indeed, although I was born just three months after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and there were still controversies over things like forced busing to integrate schools to overcome the effects of de facto segregation, it’s unthinkable to people in my age group or younger that blacks would be forced to go to different schools, bathrooms, or drinking fountains.
I suspect that Ford will lose, narrowly, because Tennessee is a conservative, Republican-leaning state and he’s a moderate who, like Al Gore, grew up in Washington, D.C. It wouldn’t shock me if he lost a few racist swing voters any more than that he will get a handful of moderate blacks who might otherwise have voted Republican but see value in having a black man represent Tennessee in the Senate. We’ll see in less than two weeks.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum observes,
The problem is that even if Ford ends up doing worse than the polls show, there might be other factors at play. I’ve always suspected, for example, that in close races there’s a small but significant number of voters who can’t bring themselves to vote against their usual party, even if they planned to do so when they walked into the polling place. Thus, I figure that Republican candidates in reddish states like Tennessee and Missouri are actually doing a little better than the polls show, while Democratic candidates in bluish states like Maryland and New Jersey are doing better than you’d think.
He’s right on both counts here. Differentials between voting behavior and poll results can have manifold explanations, from sampling error, faulty likely voter screens, and the pressure to give pollsters a definitive answer when one’s mind isn’t really made. Regardless, if Harold Ford and Michael Steele lose their respective Senate bids, as I suspect they will, race will likely be the rationale that sticks.
That’s not to say that racism doesn’t play some role in elections. As Steven Taylor notes, it’s alive and well in certain demographic sectors. Still, we likely exaggerate its explanatory power.