Chris Stout
Chris Stout, UCI political science graduate student, found that U.S. election polls tend to understate support for female candidates and overstate support for black candidates. Hoang Xuan Pham / University Communications

As a result of Tuesday’s primary election, Republican Meg Whitman will run against Democrate Jerry Brown for California governor in November. According to research by UC Irvine political science graduate student Chris Stout, Whitman may have a hidden edge.

“When it comes time to put pencil to paper, people don’t always mark the ballot the way they say they will,” he says.

Stout compared polling data and subsequent results for major state and national elections between 1982 and 2006 that involved female and minority candidates and found that women often fare better than polls predict. With black candidates, however, he found the opposite: Polls may overstate voter preference, leaving them short on Election Day.

His findings were the topic of a research report – co-authored with fellow grad student Reuben Kline – selected as best grad student paper in 2009 by the American Political Science Association’s subsection on elections, public opinion and voting behavior.

This year, Stout was chosen by the UCI Alumni Association as the Lauds & Laurels Outstanding Graduate Student, an honor that recognizes his accomplishments in teaching and service as well as research.

“Chris’ work on race, elections and politics explores the continuing significance or, perhaps, new insignificance of race in American elections and party politics involving black office seekers,” says Katherine Tate, UCI political science professor and noted scholar on black politics.

While the 2008 presidential election proved an excellent case study, bringing both gender and racial biases into the national spotlight, Stout’s colleagues note that he recognized their importance well before Barack Obama took center stage.

“Most Americans are now aware of the role of racial politics, but before the 2008 election, there was little discussion about this topic,” says Natalie Masuoka, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University and a former UCI classmate of Stout’s. “Chris foresaw the unique dynamics surrounding black candidates.”

Stout has been studying the political views and participation patterns of minorities in the U.S. since he was an undergraduate at UC Riverside. His findings have been featured in the Asian American Policy Review and will soon be published in the Ralph Bunche Journal of Public Affairs. He has also presented his research at annual meetings of the American Political Science Association and the Western Political Science Association.

His interest in the Bradley effect – the tendency of people to publicly state candidate preferences based on what seems most socially acceptable but vote differently in the booth – led to what he describes as his most interesting discovery in grad school.

“For blacks and women, the perceived ‘socially acceptable responses’ are contradictory,” Stout says. “At the polls, people say they won’t vote for a woman, but election results show that they do. With blacks, the opposite is more often the case.”

He calls that first phenomenon the Richards effect, after former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who, despite a large deficit in the polls, defeated her opponent and became, in 1991, only the second woman to govern the state. The Bradley effect was named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who lost California’s 1982 gubernatorial race despite being ahead in the polls at the time.

Stout, who – after getting his doctorate – will become an assistant professor this fall at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, plans to conduct further research to determine whether his findings carry weight and, if so, why.

“Chris is poised to be a rising star in the political science profession in the areas of race and ethnicity,” says Bernard Grofman, UCI political science professor, inaugural Jack W. Peltason Endowed Chair and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, where Stout served as a research fellow his first year here.

“He’s firmly committed to a career in research and teaching at the university level, and he will make a superb teacher.”