There's a theory going around that Donald Trump might be in an even better position than you think

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Jerry Seib: What Do Donald Trump's Poll Numbers Mean?

In 1982, California voters were supposed to elect former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley as the state's next governor.

Bradley went into the election with a sizable lead over George Deukmejian. Exit polls projected a Bradley win. But when the ballots were counted, Deukmejian came out the winner.

Thus, the "Bradley effect" was born — named as such because many white voters, who told pollsters they were voting for an African-American (Bradley), ended up breaking for the white candidate (Deukmejian).

Could Donald Trump be the 2016 version of a reverse "Bradley effect?"

That's the theory of a new study released earlier this week by Morning Consult, a DC-based data and technology company.

The study examined a mystery that has confounded polling analysts over the past few months: Why does Trump perform better in online-based surveys than polls that include live-telephone interviews?

The study posited that voters, when interviewed by pollsters via telephone, are reluctant to admit their support for a controversial candidate whose critics have painted him as racist. In self-administered online interviews, on the other hand, they will be more likely to admit their support. And that will more likely reflect their eventual decision in the privacy of a voting booth.

To see more on Trump's campaign, scroll through the gallery below:

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Donald Trump rally in Las Vegas
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There's a theory going around that Donald Trump might be in an even better position than you think
Supporters of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump attend a rally at the Westgate Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 14, 2015. Trump will face off with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and six other main stage candidates at the GOP debate on December 15. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Westgate Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 14, 2015. Trump will face off with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and six other main stage candidates at the GOP debate on December 15. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters during a campaign rally at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino on December 14, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Donlad Trump is campaigning in Las Vegas a day ahead of the final GOP debate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A protester's sign reads 'Dump Trump' during a campaign rally for Donald Trump, president and chief executive officer of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, not pictured, in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. Trump and fellow candidate Ben Carson said Sunday that talk of a contested convention to select the Republican nominee violates terms of neutrality agreements they made with party leaders not to mount third-party campaigns. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Dressed as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Dante Ciccarone, right, and Georgie Ciccarone attend a rally for Trump, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino on December 14, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Donlad Trump is campaigning in Las Vegas a day ahead of the final GOP debate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at a rally, December 14, 2015 at the Westgate Hotel & Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. Trump will face off with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and six other main stage candidates at tomorrow's GOP debate, hosted by CNN. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump supporters hold up a sign reading 'We Are The 68%' before Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump's rally, December 14, 2015 at the Westgate Hotel & Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. A recent USA Today poll shows 68% of Trump supporters would follow him if he left the GOP to make a third party run for the presidency. Trump will face off with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and six other main stage candidates at tomorrow's GOP debate, hosted by CNN. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Attendees listen during a campaign rally for Donald Trump, president and chief executive officer of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, not pictured, in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. Trump and fellow candidate Ben Carson said Sunday that talk of a contested convention to select the Republican nominee violates terms of neutrality agreements they made with party leaders not to mount third-party campaigns. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Westgate Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 14, 2015. Trump will face off with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and six other main stage candidates at the GOP debate on December 15. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at a rally, December 14, 2015 at the Westgate Hotel & Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. Trump will face off with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and six other main stage candidates at tomorrow's GOP debate, hosted by CNN. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A supporter of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump holds up a sign as he attends a rally at the Westgate Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 14, 2015. Trump will face off with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and six other main stage candidates at the GOP debate on December 15. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets with people at a rally Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 14: A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waits for the start of a campaign rally at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino on December 14, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Donlad Trump is campaigning in Las Vegas a day ahead of the final GOP debate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is given a sombrero at a rally Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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"Much work remains to better understand which types of polls are actually right in predicting Trump's support levels, but a key implication of the study is that many national polls may be underestimating Trump's support levels," the study concluded.

If true, the results could indicate that Trump's support in polls, which has risen to new heights over the past few weeks, is actually understated. Trump has climbed as high as 41% in a recent Monmouth survey of national Republican primary voters. On average, he has a 17-point lead over his next-closest Republican contender, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Overall, the study found that Trump performs about 6 percentage points better in online surveys compared with those conducted by phone. In a sample of nearly 3,000 Republican voters, the Morning Consult study found that Trump garnered 38% support with online respondents, 36% with respondents who were robo-called, and 32% among live-interviewed voters.

People's level of education may have something to do with whether they're willing to openly back Trump in live interviews, the Morning Consult study suggests. Polls have shown that less-educated voters have constituted the bulk of Trump's support. But college-educated voters are more inclined to back him in online surveys than by phone.

The research suggests this is due to the "social desirability bias" — wherein, in live-survey interviews, respondents provide an answer they believe will be viewed more favorably by others. It's the same bias that is said to have fueled the so-called Bradley effect.

In the case of the "Trump effect," blue-collar voters aren't embarrassed about their support — their support is consistent in both live-interview and online surveys. But there's a clear difference among college-educated Republicans.

"Among adults with a bachelors degree or postgraduate degree, Trump performs about 10 percentage points better online than via live telephone," the study said.

Among pollsters and other political analysts, the theory makes some sense. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, conducts polls via automated robo-calls. This method also reduces the chances of bias that results from live-interview polling, since all respondents hear the exact same questions posed exactly the same way through a technology called Interactive Voice Response.

Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, told Business Insider the firm would often find results that would more accurately reflect the public's attitude on the issue of gay marriage than more traditional, live-interview polls. The speculated reason: Respondents are more likely to want to appear sympathetic to the issue when talking to a real, live person.

"I think the theory that people are more reluctant to tell a live interviewer they support Trump is certainly plausible," Jensen said. "For instance, on gay marriage referendums over the years we always showed less support for gay marriage than live-interviewer polls and were proven to be right by the election results — because people thought the socially desirable answer was to say they supported gay marriage and were more comfortable telling us how they really felt."

Other experts, while intrigued by the idea, cast some skepticism on the final thesis — the primary reason being that many online-based surveys have proven unreliable.

Sam Wang, a polling expert and professor at Princeton University, told Business Insider that he was "attracted to the idea." But he sent over a list of caveats.

First, as he pointed out, the live-interviewer surveys featured slightly different samples than the online polls. The live samples were comprised of 4% to 5% more men, 6% to 8% more from the 30-and-older crowd, and 3% more Mitt Romney voters. If any of those groups are less favorable to Trump, the end results could contain some bias.

Second, we don't quite know how Trump's results compare to other candidates in the field. Is this phenomenon unique to Trump, or is it seen with other contenders too, such as Cruz?

"Bottom line: I think the effect's no more than three percentage points, it's therefore not enough to make a difference in how we interpret surveys, and it might disappear as the primary campaign season goes on," Wang said.

To see more of the GOP candidates, scroll through the gallery below:

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Ten 2016 GOP candidates to debate
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There's a theory going around that Donald Trump might be in an even better position than you think
AMES, IA - JULY 18:  Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. According to the organizers the purpose of The Family Leadership Summit is to inspire, motivate, and educate conservatives.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, speaks to the media following a campaign stop outside a residence in Washington, Iowa, U.S., on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Bush, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul are leading the Republican pack as most electable against Democrat Hillary Clinton in three swing states, according to a new poll with provocative implications for the crowded GOP primary. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
AYR, SCOTLAND - JULY 30:  Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump visits his Scottish golf course Turnberry on July 30, 2015 in Ayr, Scotland. Donald Trump will answer questions from the media at a press conference where reporters will be limited to questions just about golf.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
AMES, IA - JULY 18:  Republican presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz of Texas fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. According to the organizers the purpose of The Family Leadership Summit is to inspire, motivate, and educate conservatives.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Ben Carson, Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, pauses while speaking during The Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, July 18, 2015. The sponsor, The FAMiLY LEADER, is a "pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-life organization which champions the principle that God is the ultimate leader of the family." (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
AMES, IA - JULY 18:  Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. According to the organizers, the purpose of The Family Leadership Summit is to inspire, motivate, and educate conservatives.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, June 19, 2015. The annual Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference gives top-tier presidential contenders as well as long shots a chance to compete for the large evangelical Christian base in the crowded Republican primary contest. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
John Kasich, governor of Ohio, speaks while announcing he will seek the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Columbus, Ohio, U.S., on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Kasich, seeking to emerge from a crowded Republican presidential field as a practical and compassionate leader from a must-win swing state, is joins 15 other Republicans who have declared their candidacies. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01:  U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) does a live interview with ABC News in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. In protest of the National Security Agency's sweeping program to collect U.S. citizens' telephone metadata, Paul blocked an extension of some parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, allowing them to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The Senate will continue to work to restore the lapsed authorities by amending a House version of the bill and getting it to President Obama later this week.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, waits to begin a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 23, 2015. Senator Bob Corker, a key player in the congressional debate over the nuclear deal with Iran, told Secretary of State John Kerry that the Obama administration is engaging in hyperbole to sell it. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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University of Michigan political scientist Michael Traugott, meanwhile, told Business Insider that he wondered to what extent the "computer-literate" sample represented the overall Republican electorate.

"This is an interesting piece of analysis of a cleverly designed study," he said. "... One issue that is not discussed is the properties/quality of the original sample drawn from an internet panel and how well they represent the US population of Republicans or likely Republican voters. Even though the experiment involves random assignment to the three different modes for the candidate preference part of the study, I would wonder about how well these relatively computer literate respondents represent the overall population of interest."

Other polling analysts posit that support for Trump may, in fact, be overstated: He often performs better in polls that feature Republican-leaning independents, for instance. And many experts question whether Trump supporters are likely to turn out to vote in primaries and even more complicated caucuses next year.

If one thing is for certain, it's that Trump's candidacy is rewriting the rules of politics and polling.

When Trump first rose to front-running status in the summer, a number of theories prevailed: He had a "ceiling" of support. He wasn't looked upon favorably enough to win. His poll numbers were overstated because of his celebrity status and high name recognition.

Said Jensen, the Public Policy Polling director: "I don't think there's any way to know for sure until we actually start doing some voting!"

More from Business Insider:
The mind-blowing turnaround in Donald Trump's poll numbers explains why he's blowing everyone out of the water
Donald Trump is blowing away the rest of the GOP field
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