Did Whites in N.H. Overstate Support for Obama?

While conservatives are quick to point to support for Obama among white voters as evidence that there is no racism in the U.S., but there’s little evidence for this position.   Instead, the recent results in New Hampshire – in which pollsters widely predicted a victory for Obama but Clinton won by a wide margin – suggests that perhaps whites are overstating their support for Obama.   In an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times by Andrew Kohut, current president of the Pew Research Center and a former Gallup pollster, writes:

“gender and age patterns tend not to be as confounding to pollsters as race, which to my mind was a key reason the polls got New Hampshire so wrong.”

Kohut goes on to suggest that the problem in the polling in New Hampshire is the:

“longstanding pattern of pre-election polls overstating support for black candidates among white voters.”

And, he gives an example of how this can result in a miscall of an election from his own experience as a pollster:

“In 1989, as a Gallup pollster, I overestimated the support for David Dinkins in his first race for New York City mayor against Rudolph Giuliani; Mr. Dinkins was elected, but with a two percentage point margin of victory, not the 15 I had predicted.”

Kohut contends that the error is not because whites as a whole “lied” or overstated their support for the black candidate.  Instead, Kohut says the problem has to do with  “poorer and less well-educated” whites who are more likely to refuse surveys and less likely to view black candidates favorably.    He says that the polling today is better at gauging support for black candidates, however…:

“… the difficulties in interviewing the poor and the less well-educated persist.”

What’s interesting to me here is that Kohut doesn’t pursue the original premise that he started out with, that whites are overstating their support for Obama, but instead ends up placing the blame for the miscall on the “poor and less well-educated.”  The analysis of why the polling in New Hampshire missed so badly is still under review, but I think an important part of that analysis needs to be examining the classic methodological flaw of “social desirability.”  In this instance, it may be that whites understand that the “socially desirable” response is to say that they support a black candidate when in fact they can’t bring themselves to actually cast their ballot across racial lines.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    (kind of off the topic—sorry) But did want to say that it is interesting why (or why not) people vote, as well as how they actually vote. I am aware of some who quit voting as far back as the Nixon election and are convinced voting is useless and everything is rigged. Even many voters feel the same way to a greater or lesser degree and have further criticisms related to the voting process and so on. The cynical view would suggest that finding a place to shift the blame is really a waste of time and energy for those who do…. Nonetheless, whether our candidates of choice end up in office or not and which political party reigns, I believe that each of us has a duty and obligation to actively press for social change in the direction democracy on behalf of those that don’t vote for whatever reason(s), uniformed voters who vote for candidates that do not have their best interests (from a Progressive/Democratic/Green standpoint), the disenfranchised, and for our future generations.

    Anyway, I wanted to post the link to the United States Election Assistance Commission page for anybody who has websites, or otherwise, who wish to provide direction for people to register if they are not—and/or make any necessary changes necessary to vote and/or register with a party, etc. (links to the forms can be found here):


    (Obama or bust…to the Green Party)

  2. Will

    That is one of my favorite racism myths, that being “poor and uneducated” somehow makes you more likely to be racist. I find it particularly appealing because of widespread perception of the United States as a nation of middle class people and very few would admit to being uneducated. It quickly creates a generalized other that everyone can lament because nobody belongs. A most entertaining form of racialized ideology.


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