Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
As Maine's referendum on gay marriage approaches, the polls are giving supporters of same-sex nuptials reason to cheer. Most surveys indicate that the effort to block gay marriage in the state will fail.
Before California's vote on gay marriage last fall, however, the polls showed the exact same thing. Those forecasts were wrong and California banned gay marriage in its constitution. The key question in Maine is whether the polls will be wrong again.
That, of course, is a difficult question to answer. One thing I've learned watching politics is that while it's completely predictable that polls will sometimes be wrong, it's not at all predictable precisely when they will be wrong. If it was obvious that a poll was wrong, the pollster would have come up with some different numbers.
That said, there is one explanation as to why the polls were wrong in California that might be at least somewhat instructive for the Maine vote: the "Bradley Effect" for gay marriage.
The theory here is that some voters might not tell strangers over the phone their true feelings about gay marriage for the same reason they might not tell strangers on the phone their true feelings about a black candidate: They fear that an honest answer wouldn't be a socially acceptable answer -- that it might even make them look like bigots.
Never mind that there is quite a bit of debate about whether a Bradley Effect ever existed for black candidates in the first place. When it comes to gay marriage, the theory is plausible enough that it deserves to be entertained. And, the important thing is that there's no obvious reason why such an effect would be less potent in Maine than in California. If respondents are fibbing to pollsters, a gay marriage ban may pass in Maine.
In fact, there's at least a small bit of evidence that voters are fibbing to pollsters. One of the stronger showings for gay marriage foes in Maine -- a poll that showed an even tie on the vote -- has come from the only firm that has conducted a poll in the state using an automated message. The pollster's explanation: Opposition to gay marriage was stronger because voters are more willing to tell the truth to a machine than a real person.
Of course, I'm sure you can come up with other explanations as to why the polls were wrong in California -- explanations that wouldn't be particularly relevant to the Maine vote. Perhaps in California pollsters were underestimating the turnout of blacks and Hispanics (groups that happened to be more likely to oppose gay marriage) who were motivated by President Obama's campaign. Maine doesn't have a lot of blacks and Hispanics.
Due to this uncertainty, the vote in Maine won't just be a test of how voters feel about gay marriage. It will also be a test of whether, when it comes to gay rights issues, a Bradley Effect exists.
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