The Bradley Effect

In light of Barack Obama’s acknowledgement that he’s considering a presidential run, I found this Newsweek article on “the Bradley Effect” rather interesting, though its focus is primarily on the Senate race over the seat being vacated by Bill Frist, in which the Democratic challenger, Harold Ford, Jr., is black.

As black candidates reaching out to largely white constituencies have discovered in the past, when it comes to measuring political popularity there are lies, damned lies—and polls, on which they rest their fate at their peril.

The phenomenon was first widely noted in 1982, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost a squeaker of a race for governor after being widely projected as the winner. Douglas Wilder also came up against the "Bradley Effect" when he barely won the 1989 contest for governor of Virginia, after leading comfortably in the polls.

Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland was at Wilder's hotel as a projected easy victory turned into a nail-biter. That is a night "I'll never forget," says Walters, who thinks it "naive" to believe that things have changed very much. He believes that some percentage of whites—perhaps 5 percent or so, intent on being seen as less biased than they may be—will claim to support a nonwhite candidate when they actually do not.

Other political observers think the effect may have diminished over time. "We may be seeing the turning of this," says Ed Sarpolus, vice president of EPIC-MRA, a Michigan-based polling firm.
Is it naïve to believe that things have changed, or have we seen the turning of this tide? It’s difficult to measure racism that has gone underground. The kind of covert racism that would lead someone support civil rights and say they’d vote for a black candidate, even though they wouldn’t actually vote for him, is the same kind of racism that could leave a fella like George Allen with black defenders who would swear from here to eternity that he’s not a racist and white intimates who would swear from here to eternity that they’ve heard him use the N-word. Neither of them are necessarily lying, but just speaking from their respective experiences with him, and there are plenty of white folks who express racism only when they think it’s “safe”—that is, with other white folks, or in the privacy of a voting booth.

I find it astounding that there are white people who will say they’ll vote for a black person to a pollster, when they really wouldn’t, but, then again, I also find it astounding that there are still white people in my predominantly white, redneck, red state town who will say all kinds of crazy racist shit to me with the presumption that I share their sentiments, just because I’m white.

I can’t imagine what the Bradley Effect could mean for a national election with a black Democratic presidential candidate, but I suspect that race plays a bigger issue the more similar the candidates are. In other words, if Obama were running against a wildly conservative candidate, a Rick Santorum-type, I don’t believe that his race would matter nearly as much as the vast policy difference he represented. But if Obama were running against a candidate with a reputation, even if undeserved, for moderation, like John McCain, and the contest were framed as center-left versus center-right, I believe his race would suddenly be weighed more heavily by those voters predisposed to caring about race in the first place, as there appeared less policy difference for voters’ consideration. And that seems to me to leave Obama the centrist in a rather precarious position—though I certainly wouldn’t advocate against Obama running for that reason, because it’s just one of many question marks any candidate faces.

Anyway, I just thought I’d throw it out there and see what you make of it.

(Crossposted at Ezra's place.)

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