Is the “Bradley effect” dead? The Obama campaign had better not count on it.
The way Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 led many commentators and political scientists to drive what they cited as the final nail into the coffin of the Bradley effect. This term, named for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, defines how polling for elections between a minority candidate and a white candidate is skewed if voters won’t admit that they will not vote for a minority candidate. (Some East Coast political analysts call this the “Wilder effect” — since this same phenomena happened during my 1989 gubernatorial campaign in Virginia.)
But what if the Bradley effect is not dead? What if this byproduct of racism has only metastasized?
Time magazine explained the Bradley effect in an October 2008 article:
“In 1982, Tom Bradley — the African-American mayor of Los Angeles — ran for governor of California. On the eve of the election, polls anointed him a prohibitive favorite. But on Election Day, Bradley lost to his white opponent, Republican George Deukmejian.”
Post-election analysis showed that white voters had cast ballots for Bradley in far smaller numbers than polling suggested. Meanwhile, the votes of the avowed “undecideds” fell in a cascading wave for Deukmejian.
This almost happened to me. Voter surveys immediately before my 1989 election as Virginia governor showed me leading my Republican opponent by almost 10 points. Some showed an even larger lead.
My campaign knew better, however. Our internal polls always showed the race to be a statistical dead heat. We told everyone to stop acknowledging victory and taking kudos. On Election Day, I won by less than half a percentage point — far less than the double-digit victory polls expected. That same day, David Dinkins eked out a similarly close win to become the first black mayor of New York — also unlike what pre-election polls had predicted.
So is the Bradley effect dead? I would argue that Team Obama should tread cautiously when looking at where the president stands in the polls. Since a variation of the Bradley effect should be anticipated.
The New York Times has noted this, with a recent article, “4 Years Later, Race Is Still Issue for Some Voters.”
One Ohio law enforcement official, John Corrigan of Jefferson County, talked about this. “Certain precincts in this county,” Corrigan said, “are not going to vote for Obama. I don’t want to say it, but we all know why.”
Jason Foreman, also interviewed for this article, had no trouble discussing the reason why, “I’ll say it: It’s because he’s black.”
The article continued describing how race in non-urban/nonsuburban areas of swing states — even those populated by union members normally supportive of Democratic candidates — still have a problem supporting Obama, due to his mixed-race heritage.
The article made me think of the Bradley effect — and why its classic sense from the 1980s may now be inoperative. Voters today do feel comfortable telling a pollster that they won’t vote for a minority candidate. They are able to do just this in the Times — with their names, hometowns and occupations cited. That’s not the concern in what may be a modernized Bradley effect.
This time it’s minorities, students and marginal independent voters who are in the grasp of the effect. In 2008, those groups turned out in large numbers for Obama. When pollsters called, they proudly announced their plans to take part in a national movement — one that would elect Obama to the White House.
Some seasoned election watchers questioned whether these groups would actually show up in the overwhelming numbers predicted. On Election Day, they did.
So Obama won. And he won big — becoming the first person, black or white, to win more that 51 percent of the vote since 1988. (He won 53 percent of the ballots cast in 2008.)
What about 2012?
When pollsters call these voting blocs now, many people will likely proclaim their continued loyalty to the president.
They won’t be lying to pollsters about whom they really want to vote for. The issue will be whether they actually go to the booth and vote for Obama.
Many voted in 2008 with the desire to see racism and racists humiliated by having a qualified black man elected president. Especially after eight years of what was not, and still is not, perceived as a successful presidency.
Now, many of these same voters still feel an allegiance to Obama — and he’s their theoretical choice in the election. But along with feeling some allegiance, they also may be left feeling disappointment. And that can lead to a disconnect with what pollsters hear compared with the voters who actually show up on Election Day.
What I am hearing from around the country is that many black and brown voters, whom the president might consider his strongest base, feel left behind, taken for granted and largely ignored.
The people who need jobs, help with educational costs and improved wages question when their bailout is coming. They question why they were not included in the first stimulus package. They wonder whether this is the best that can be achieved where they are concerned. They wonder why, when they ask these questions, it is considered “whining.” Yet when others make the same “noise,” they get the mother’s milk of politics: money from Washington.
Have the president and his administration tended astutely to the special concerns of these voters, who placed so much hope in him and his ability to make life different or better? Too often the answer I hear is, “No.”
Will the people who voice such sentiments storm the gates for the Republican nominee? Again, the answer I hear is, “No.”
But will a large portion of them feel less likely to make lines unusually long come Election Day 2012 to match what they did in 2008? The answer to that question, might be, “Yes.”
And with that, a version of the Bradley effect may be reborn as the Obama effect. Voters who tell pollsters the candidate they support, wanting to still be a part of a post-racial American tableau — but unmotivated to vote by former feelings of hope that saw too little real change.
The piece originally appeared in Politico on May 15, 2012: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76274.html