The Bradley effect isn't dead, but it won't sink ObamaPoint: Kareem Crayton
Even if we agree that this race is Barack Obama's to lose, it's probably worth discussing an issue that could affect his margin of his victory. Garnering 300 or more electoral votes would look far more like a mandate than getting barely more than 270 (though either is better than 269). While some polls show Obama leading John McCain by double digits nationally, that margin might not pan out in the end. Aside from watching for the obvious shifts that may occur in the polls due to unforeseen events, I'd bet that at least a few folks in the Obama campaign are on guard for signs of the "Bradley effect."
For the record: The Bradley effect derives its name from the late Tom Bradley, one of America's greatest mayors, who served this city for two decades. Most Angelinos credit Bradley, only the second black mayor of a major U.S. city, with constructing a modern, multi-racial coalition that bridged the liberal and more moderate parts of the electorate. Bradley had quite a successful tenure as mayor, having presided over a period of significant economic growth and development.
In 1982, Bradley ran unsuccessfully for governor against Republican George Deukmejian. Most media and polls during the campaign (and even on election day) projected that Bradley would win by a comfortable margin, yet he lost by less than half a percentage point. The "effect" in question refers to the difference between the reported and actual voter support for Bradley, which some link to the unwillingness of some white voters to register their clear opposition to a non-white political candidate when asked by a pollster.
Since that time, academics and commentators have argued that the Bradley effect has been at play in other contests involving nonwhite candidates who have sought statewide office -- Douglas Wilder's successful bid in 1989 to be Virginia's governor is one example. Wilder defeated his white opponent by a historically narrow margin even though polls indicated that he would cruise to victory. Apparently, some of the electorate who said they were Wilder supporters did not actually vote for him.
During the Democratic primaries this year, quite a few people revived the Bradley effect to explain Obama's narrow defeat in New Hampshire. After Obama handily won the Iowa caucuses, polls in New Hampshire suggested that he would show Hillary Clinton the final exit from the campaign. USA Today, for instance, claimed that he was ahead of Clinton by 13%. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Granite State's ballot boxes on Jan. 8; an obviously stunned and deflated Chris Matthews grudgingly acknowledged Clinton's victory early in the evening.
I don't think the Bradley effect was at play in New Hampshire. People simply had not made up their minds. What most forget about that contest is that it happened just days after the Iowa caucuses. Voters everywhere were rethinking their views after Iowa (to Obama's benefit in South Carolina). Any nonpartisan pollster would have a hard time accurately measuring an electorate whose opinions are in such flux. In fact, many of the polls showing the Obama lead also reported a sizable pool of voters who remained undecided, and exit polling showed that Clinton won a larger share of votes cast by the "late deciders." Without credible evidence linking those decisions to unsavory views (I've seen none), the Bradley effect explanation carries little water with me.
There is some research suggesting that the Bradley effect is a thing of the past. One study shows that the discrepancy between the polled and actual level support for nonwhite candidates in statewide elections has declined since the late 1980s, which strikes me as a plausible finding. Still, one can explain this trend partly by the technological improvements in polling. Political strategists have gotten much better at predicting what people want, and government has helped by doing a better job of recording and cataloging voting patterns. This practice has become more of a science than an art form in the last decade (just ask people such as Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster who now sports a doctorate in social science).
But I find that the essence of the Bradley effect -- that some white voters will never support a nonwhite candidate (whether or not they admit it) -- remains a relevant issue in American politics. Black voters have a long pattern of supporting white candidates in large numbers (how else could Bill Clinton become the first "black" president?). But the reverse, sadly, is not as true. Obama lagged behind Hillary Clinton among white voters in many primaries where a large share of voters said that race was a factor in their decision. And I suspect this pattern will endure through Nov. 4. Among white Democrats living in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, one can't help but wonder how much of the reported resistance to Obama is at least partially rooted in concerns about his race.
So what does all of this mean for the Obama campaign? I'd say there is good news and bad news. First, the bad news. Sorry, but there is no transcending the issue of race in American politics. We are a diverse country with a very complex (and, at times, unfortunate) record on race. This legacy means that at least some part of the electorate will remain unavailable to Obama because of who he is. There also may be people who claim either to support Obama or remain undecided who will not cast a ballot for him. But you don't seek the nomination for president if you can't face that reality. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Now for the good news: Obama is a major party's nominee. Presidential elections are fundamentally different from normal campaigns because they generate greater turnout. They also draw large numbers of new voters. Neither Bradley's nor Wilder's campaigns were held during presidential election years. Political science holds that there is a significant drop-off in voter participation in nonpresidential elections, which often shapes outcomes. The registration and turnout machines for statewide campaigns certainly are robust, but they are not as formidable as the multimillion-dollar national operations that draw out the vote during presidential races. In "high salience" campaigns such as this one, a larger percentage of us are likely voters.
By turning up the dial on his get-out-the-vote efforts, Obama has a chance to overwhelm any Bradley effect and inch closer to a November result that resembles a national mandate. And, for good measure, it probably wouldn't hurt to call Joe Biden for a few more joint campaign appearances.
Kareem Crayton is an associate professor of law and political science at USC. He is an expert on election law and serves as a consultant for redistrictinggame.com.
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