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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James,

    You don’t see the possibility of the younger generation feeling a “politically correct” pressure to support someone based on being a minority race or to avoid being seen not supporting them lest it be inferred the lack of support was based on race?

    Look at the cries of racism because a white woman was associated with Ford’s playboy party hook up. You can’t see the possibility of someone wanting to avoid the charge they are a racist when such an innocuous thing can be considered a racist act?

  2. Tano says:

    “people telling pollsters what they think they want to hear”

    I am not denying the existence of such a phenomenon, but it sure strikes me as weird. If asked by a pollster for my opinion on anything, I dont think it would ever enter my mind that the pollster was “wanting to hear” a certain answer, nor could I imagine being influenced in my response by such a sense even if I did feel it.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Tano: It’s more a case of not wanting to give a politically incorrect answer. People naturally want to impress other people and are often afraid, in the personalistic context of a phone call with a stranger, to confess holding views that one isn’t supposed to have.

  4. I concur that the likelihood is that ultimately in MD and TN the most significant factor will be the basic partisan makeup of the states in question.

    I also agree that in the postmortems in the punditocracy, race will be overly emphasized.

    Still, as you note, it is a factor that cannot be ignored. In terms of analysis, the question is one of proportionality in weighing the variables.

  5. Tano says:


    But for goodness sakes, how can saying that you will vote for Bob Corker be seen as “politically incorrect”? TN is a pretty red state, and it is hardly an edgy position to take to say that you will vote for a Republican. I mean, it is not like asking someone if they use the n word.

  6. Tano says:

    Maybe, given the context of TN as a red southern state, the “politically incorrect” answer is that you intend to vote for a black Democrat for Senator. Maybe it is Ford’s vote that is being underestimated.