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In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley secured the Democratic nomination for Governor of California, a first for an African-American politician since Reconstruction. The polls showed him easily defeating the Republican George Deukmejian and the early post-election editions of The San Francisco Chronicle carried the headline “Bradley Win Projected.” But in the end, Deukmejian won by less than 94,000 votes (in an election that saw almost 210,000 votes go to third-party candidates.)
When the question arose as to how the pollsters screwed it up, the theory of “The Bradley Effect” was born. In a nutshell, white voters were supposedly “ashamed” to admit that they were supporting a white candidate over a black candidate and lied to the polling companies, especially if the individuals asking the questions were black. It is a theory that has been both pushed and dismissed without proof one way or the other for almost 40 years now.
In the last three years we’ve seen three massive failures of public opinion polling worldwide: the 2016 US presidential election, the UK referendum on EU membership and, most recently, the Australian Parliamentary elections. Of those three, Australia is the most interesting. Down Under, the Aussies have mandatory voting. If you don’t vote they will seek you out afterward for a reason. If the authorities aren’t satisfied with your answer there’s a modest fine. ($20AUS for the 1st offense, $50 for repeat “offenders.”) Since its institution in 1924 turnout has never been lower than 91%. Modeling the electorate or predicting turnout is not their problem. The only logical conclusion is that respondents are deliberately misleading them.
The idea that someone in 1982 either felt shame or feared retribution is laughable. That can no longer be said today. Give the wrong opinion now and within minutes your picture could be on social media with pleas for crowdsourcing your identity, with the ultimate purpose to make your life a living hell with everything from threats to your life, your property and your livelihood.
Of course, none of the legitimate pollsters would put up with any of their employees doxxing survey participants. But the thought only has to exist in the minds of the public to put a chill upon the whole process.
Make no mistake about it: de-platforming, de-monetizing, doxxing and shaming on social media is the new Puritanism. Like the heroine of Nathanial Hawthorne’s story, we’re all to be branded with a new scarlet letter, be it “C” for Conservative or “T” for Trumpist. That’s going to push the gap between public pronouncements and the private actions of the voting booth farther and farther apart.