Have you ever wondered how news organizations predict election outcomes? They use political polls! Political polls are surveys that ask people about their voting intentions. 

Polls help us understand public opinion and predict the results of elections. But what happens when polls are wrong? That’s where the Bradley Effect comes in. 

The Bradley Effect is a phenomenon that can cause polls to overestimate the support for non-white candidates. It’s named after Tom Bradley, an African-American candidate who lost the 1982 California gubernatorial election despite leading in the polls.

The Bradley Effect can also lead to false perceptions about the level of support for non-white candidates. Making candidates think they have more support than they actually do.

Let’s look at how the Bradley Effect impacts political polls with examples, and how to mitigate its effect.

Understanding Political Polling

Understanding Political Polling

Political polling has three major purposes – to gauge public sentiment, predict election outcomes, and inform political strategies. Here’s how it works:

  • Gauging Public Sentiment

You can use political polls to measure public opinion on various topics, such as political candidates, issues, and government policies. Politicians, journalists, and the public use the data collected from the polls to understand public opinion and how it is changing over time.

  • Predicting Election Outcomes

Polls collect data about voters about their intended voting preferences. You can then use this information to make projections about who will win and lose elections.

  • Informing Political Strategies

Politicians and campaign managers can also use political polls to inform political strategies. For example, politicians may use poll results to identify their strengths and weaknesses, develop campaign strategies, and target voters with messages that resonate with them.

Methods and Techniques of Political Polling

Methods and Techniques of Political Polling

Here are the most common methods for political polls and their use cases:

  • Telephone Surveys

Telephone surveys involve interviewing people over the phone. This method can reach a large number of people and is relatively inexpensive. 

However, it can be difficult to get people to participate in telephone surveys, and the results may be biased if certain groups of people are more likely to answer the phone than others.

  • Online Polls

In recent years, this method has become increasingly popular because it is convenient and inexpensive. However, online polls are prone to bias and misrepresentation if you do not use the right poll tool or if you do not carefully design your survey question.

  • Exit polls

Exit polls are polls taken by people as they’re leaving the polls after voting in an election. They can give us a good idea of who people voted for and why. 

 However, exit polls can be inaccurate if they are not carefully designed and conducted.

The Bradley Effect Defined

The Bradley Effect Defined

The Bradley Effect (also known as the racial bias effect) is a theory that some voters may lie to pollsters about their true preferences. For example, some voters may say they plan to vote for a “non-white candidate” but end up voting for a “white candidate” on Election Day

It’s called the “Bradley Effect” because it’s named after a black candidate, Tom Bradley, who lost to a white candidate in the 1982 California governor’s race. Bradley was leading in the polls at the time but ended up losing by a landslide.

This led some experts to believe that the polls had overestimated Bradley’s support due to the Bradley Effect.

How the Bradley Effect Works

Several psychological factors trigger the Bradley Effect. Here are some of them:

  • Social Desirability Bias: This is a tendency for people to give socially acceptable answers, even if they are not true. In the context of polling, this means that some voters may be reluctant to tell pollsters that they won’t vote for a non-white candidate, for fear of being seen as racist.
  • Fear of Being Perceived as Racist: Some voters may worry that people will think they are racist if they admit that they are not going to vote for a non-white candidate. As a result, they may tell pollsters that they intend to vote for the non-white candidate but then vote for the white candidate on Election Day.

Examples of the Bradley Effect

There have been some elections where the Bradley Effect is thought to have influenced the polling outcomes. Some notable examples include:

  • Walter Mondale vs Ronald Reagan in 1984 US Elections

The 1984 US presidential election, in which Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee, lost to Ronald Reagan by a landslide. Mondale had a lead in the polls going into the election, but he lost by a much larger margin than expected. 

Some experts believe that the Bradley Effect played a role in Mondale’s defeat, as he was seen as too liberal by some voters.

  • Barack Obama’s Winning Margin in the 2008 Election

The 2008 US presidential election, in which Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, won the election, but not by as large a margin as some polls had predicted. Some experts believe that the Bradley Effect played a role in Obama’s performance, as he was the first African-American major party nominee for president.

Make Your Voice Heard with Our Easy to Use Political Poll Template!

The Evolution of the Bradley Effect

How the Bradley Effect Works

While the Bradley Effect was first identified in the 1980s, it is still relevant today. In recent years, there have been several elections where the Bradley Effect may have played a role.

For example, in the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton led in the polls for most of the campaign. However, Donald Trump won the election, despite being behind in the polls. 

Some analysts believe that the Bradley Effect may have played a role in Trump’s victory, as some white voters who intended to vote for Trump may have been reluctant to tell pollsters that they were supporting him.

Examples from recent elections

Here are some other examples from recent elections where the Bradley Effect may have played a role:

  • In the 2018 US midterm elections, Andrew Gillum, an African-American candidate, lost the Florida gubernatorial race to Ron DeSantis, a white candidate, despite leading in the polls.
  • In the 2019 US presidential election, Stacey Abrams, an African-American candidate, lost the Georgia gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, a white candidate, despite leading in the polls.

Polling Strategies to Mitigate the Bradley Effect

Polling Strategies to Mitigate the Bradley Effect

We’ve already discussed how the Bradley effect can affect your polls and election forecasts. Here’s how you can avoid the Bradley effect using Formplus:

  1. Anonymous Responses

Allow respondents to submit their answers anonymously. This makes them more comfortable providing honest responses, especially on sensitive topics. You can use confidential phone numbers and not ask respondents for their names or other identifying information in the poll

Also, using the Formplus poll maker allows you to collect anonymous responses, ensuring that respondents’ identities are not linked to their answers. This reduces the potential for social desirability bias associated with the Bradley Effect.

  1. Question-Wording

Carefully design survey questions and use neutral language to minimize the chances of respondents feeling pressured to provide socially desirable answers. 

You don’t have to create these poll questions from scratch. You can use well-designed political poll templates as a guideline to help you create neutral and non-leading questions that allow respondents to state their true political preferences

  1. Private and Non-judgmental Environment

Create a survey environment where respondents feel their answers are private and non-judgmental. Having a non-judgemental environment encourages more honest and open responses compared to face-to-face interviews.

A good way to do this is to create mobile-friendly surveys that respondents can answer in the privacy of their homes or on personal devices. 

  1. Randomized Question and Option Order

Randomize the order of the question and answer choices to prevent response bias. Response bias is when people pick a particular option because of where the option was placed in the survey. For example, voters may choose a candidate because they are the first option.

Formplus polls allow you to easily randomize the order of answer choices for multiple-choice questions, reducing potential biases linked to option order.

  1. Inclusive Survey Panels

Collect responses from people from diverse backgrounds in the survey panel to ensure the sample accurately reflects the population. Using the Formplus poll maker allows you to reach a wider audience, including various demographics, through its online accessibility, mobile responsiveness, and integration with social media and other communication channels.

  1. Monitoring and Quality Control

Implement rigorous quality control measures to detect and correct potential biases in real-time. For example, you can use the Formplus real-time response tracking and analytics features to monitor survey results as they come in. This allows you to identify and address potential issues promptly.

Also, as a polling organization, you can use a statistical formula to determine the proportion of respondents who would have answered yes to the question about the sensitive topic if they had been asked directly.

  1. Education and Awareness

Educate respondents about the purpose of the survey and the importance of honest and accurate responses. You can use the Formplus intro page feature to inform respondents about the survey’s objectives and the significance of truthful responses before the survey starts.

Say goodbye to back-and-forth discussions and hello to clear-cut choices with our free Straw Poll Template!


Other Influences on Polling Accuracy

The Bradley Effect is just one of several factors that can affect the accuracy of polling data. Other factors include:

  • Non-response bias: A non-response bias is when one group of people is more likely to answer a poll than another. This can affect the results of a poll because only one group is responding to the poll and the people who aren’t responding may have very different views, resulting in an overestimate or underestimate of support for a candidate.
  • Sample size: Sample size is also important.  Having a larger and more diverse sample size will most likely provide more accurate results because they are representative of the population. 
  • Survey wording: The wording of survey questions can also affect the results of polls. Questions that are worded in a biased way can lead to inaccurate results.


Polls are a valuable tool for understanding public opinion, but it is important to keep in mind that they may not be perfectly accurate. Phenomena like the Bradley Effect can significantly influence the accuracy of polling data and the way we perceive the level of support for non-white candidates.

However, using polling best practices and an effective online polling tool like Formplus allows you to prevent and detect the Bradley Effect in your polls. We hope this guide helps you create more accurate polls and make better election predictions.

  • Moradeke Owa
  • on 8 min read


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