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.