Obama and the 'Bradley effect'

Today's topic: Some observers warn of the so-called Bradley effect and suggest that Obama may appear to be doing better than he really is. Others say young people are not being polled effectively because they're on cellphones and not listed. Any thoughts on the accuracy or inaccuracy of polling? Previously, Crayton and Welch discussed McCain’s chances of catching Obama, the changing demographics of the electorate and how effectively the candidates are appealing to voters.

The Bradley effect isn't dead, but it won't sink Obama
Point: 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

This isn't the same America as 1982
Counterpoint: Matt Welch


I will defer to your professional expertise on the recent available research concerning the Bradley effect, which I figure is murky at best at this point, and instead go with the journalist's favorite crutch: the anecdote!

Anecdote 1: Though I'm usually wrong with political predictions (or else we'd be seeing GOP nominee Rudy Giuliani right now), I was right from the beginning of the Democratic primaries in predicting that Obama would win the nomination, on account of his steadfast opposition to a deeply unpopular war at a time when most Democrats still felt like they needed to at least partly support the invasion of Iraq to look "tough." I remember distinctly throughout 2007 sharing my conviction with a series of Hollywood and journalistic semi-conservatives, and hearing back the same answer over and over again: "Unfortunately, America's just not ready for a black president. The country's still too racist."

My response then was the same I make now when anxious Washington conservatives ask whether I think there'll be some kind of racial conflict should Obama somehow lose: I have more faith in America than all of that.

Anecdote 2: I have heard, from many of the same pools of non-Democrats, a perhaps surprising refrain: "I kind of hope Obama will win, and might even vote for him," just to prove once and for all that America is a comparatively nonracist land of opportunity, or to turn the page on the last century of largely poisonous and recently fatigued racial politics. I won't pretend that this marks a statistically significant percentage of the electorate, but if you take enough testimonials like these (of which I've heard, maybe, a dozen) and mix it with white-liberal enthusiasm for advertising the rainbow progressivism of both the Democratic Party and the United States, then we might have the beginnings of a reverse Bradley effect, where late-breaking voters decide at the last minute, "To hell with it, let's just vote for the black guy."

In fact, the more I hear Obama bash free trade, invoke the scary specter of China, talk enthusiastically about "reregulation" and express enthusiasm for sending U.S. troops to Pakistan and Darfur, the more I begin to realize that my barely perceptible enthusiasm for the guy is limited largely to three factors. First, he's neither a Republican nor John McCain in a year that both arguably deserve to lose. Second, he sometimes talks in a way that assumes the intelligence of the American people, which is a refreshing change. Third, and by far most important, he offers at least the possibility of putting Southern strategy politics and the racist antecedents in the legal code of many cities and states way back there in the rearview mirror.

In a country that still suffers mightily from its original sin, electing a black president named Barack Hussein Obama -- just seven years after 9/11, no less -- would be a powerful counterpoint next time some smarty pants from an ethnically homogenous white European country tries to tell you that "America is a racist country." I am 1,000% positive that I'm not the only one who feels that way, nor am I the only one who feels that way and yet still hasn't made up his mind about who to vote for on Nov. 4.

Anecdote 3: This is tangential at best, but since the Bradley effect refers to 1982, I thought it might be useful to set the clock back just three years before. When Iranian revolutionaries took 52 Americans hostage in Tehran in 1979, I was a fifth-grader at Mark Twain Elementary School in Long Beach (in the days before that fair city became "the LBC"). At that moment and for the years immediately after (when a wave of Iranian exiles took root in Beverly Hills, Westwood and the San Fernando Valley), the amount of vile anti-Iranian racism was staggering to behold.

Some 22 years later, when Islamic fundamentalists pulverized the World Trade Center, many Americans -- myself included -- worried about a much bigger and more violent backlash against every weird-looking brown dude with a beard. As a matter of fact, I distinctly recall freaking out a day or two after 9/11 when a bunch of cop cars and ambulances went down Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz in the direction of a Sikh temple there. I eventually walked down the street to the house of worship and talked to one of the weird-looking brown dudes with a beard, who told me that the cops had nothing to do with him and that everyone in the neighborhood had been totally kind, helpful and even pre-emptively apologetic. America's response to 9/11, more than any one single event, convinced me that the noxious tribalism of my youth had given way to something new. Instead of trying to indiscriminately attack scary foreigners and their faraway conflicts, Americans tried their best to understand them.

Back in 1982, the vast majority of local law enforcement in Southern California was white, and I knew cops who bragged about beating up black kids. By 2008, the force is incredibly integrated and no longer seen as an occupying army in the nonwhite parts of town. Remember all those openly gay actors, politicians and musicians in 1982? Me neither. American society moves much, much faster than we usually give it credit for, and almost always in the direction of more tolerance, more personal autonomy and more individualized experimentation in lifestyles and identities. This is especially true for young people, for whom the kind of gay-bashing politics that the Republicans used to their advantage in 2004 just feels like Martian gibberish.

So the societal conditions are ripe, I think, for a black candidate to get just as much support as pre-election polls indicate, if not more. If he wins, hopefully the next iteration of this conversation will be less about the lingering strains of possible racism in the electorate and more about the lingering strains of possible unfairness in the legal systems of most every level of government, enacted to combat racism in the first place. If Americans are colorblind enough to elect an untested black guy with the middle name Hussein at a time of war over a heavily experienced, certified American hero, then maybe it's time to begin discussing whether the city of Los Angeles will ever become colorblind in its handing out of government contracts.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine and the author of "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick."