Can California being seeing a repeat of electoral history with this year’s ballot measure on same-sex marriage?
Back in 1982, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was running for governor, California voters told pollsters that they intended to vote for the African American candidate, but on election day, they pulled their levers for his opponent, George Duekmejian. With the chance to vote for Barack Obama the “Bradley Effect” is back on the political radar.
This year, we may well see the “Ru Paul effect.” She’s the drag queen everyone loves from a distance but might not want as a next door neighbor.
Campaign consultants, including myself, on both sides of California’s Proposition 8 – the initiative which would eliminate the right to marry for same-sex couples – are facing a similar gap between how people say they’ll vote and what they’ll actually do on election day.
Following the release of last week’s Field Poll, which showed Proposition 8 losing by seventeen points, Yes on 8 campaign manager Frank Shubert spun the results this way, “Recent polls published by California media outlets claim that Proposition 8, restoring marriage in California as between a man and a woman, is trailing among voters. These polls, including the Field Poll released this week, suffer from the same historic problem that other polls on this subject around the country have had: they do not accurately reflect the true support for traditional marriage.”
According to Shubert, the Field Poll mistakenly underestimated support for Proposition 22 – the last state measure to “define” marriage – by nine percent. And he hints at something like Bradley in his reasoning: “I can’t say for sure why polls almost always understate support for traditional marriage, but I believe it is because the media portrays same-sex marriage as being politically correct,” Schubert said.
“Supporters of traditional marriage don’t want pollsters to consider them intolerant, so they mask their true feelings on the issue. The result is that support for traditional marriage rises considerably when voters cast their ballots in the privacy of the voter booth. It is my opinion that the same thing will happen in California when voters cast ballots on Proposition 8.”
Shubert’s point is that Californians inherently believe that no person should be treated differently under the law, so they will tell pollsters that they’re against Proposition 8, when they really are leaning towards voting for it. He may be onto something.
Just five years ago, California held a recall election where a famous action-film star was on the ballot. Human polling vastly underestimated the support for the actor, now Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. By eliminating the human element, however, some robo-polling was able to get the numbers right long before the October election. People, it seems, were embarrassed to admit that they supported a movie star – especially one with a colorful, over-the-top body builder’s past – to be their next governor.
It wasn’t the first time that human pollsters were tricked by the psychology of an election. After all, Ru Paul’s pronouncements – Work it! – are great on the runway but, well, not universally appropriate or appealing. So, it’s not unrealistic for Shubert and the crowd who wishes to re-define marriage in California, to rely on the hope that people are at their core indecent and would lie about it to a stranger.
For the No on 8 Campaign, opponents must reinforce people’s inherent belief that, regardless of how they feel about marriage equality, it’s wrong to treat people differently under the law – a message which is at the core of their new ad campaign.
But if poll after poll after poll keep returning the same result, maybe people need to start trusting their veracity.