Obama and the ‘Bradley effect’

Barack Obama’s historic bid for the presidency has spawned many political theories, one of which is that he could fall victim to the "Bradley Effect."

Even a cursory media database search finds dozens of recent references to the term, usually in conjunction with Obama’s somewhat lackluster standing in the polls vis-a-vis rival John McCain, such as this one from NBC pundit Chris Matthews:

"I mean, is this going to be something we can’t even interpret through polling? We can talk about the Bradley Effect because of what happened to Tom Bradley when he ran for governor of California and won in the polls twice and lost the governorship twice on Election Day. I’ve seen theories about this, that unless the African American candidate is able to get . . . the election number he needs, he won’t get it that day. He has to get it in the polling, and Barack hasn’t cracked about 45 percent."

Or this one from a Wall Street Journal article on political polling:

"Pollsters look for the Bradley Effect, the idea that some white voters are reluctant to say they support a white candidate over a black candidate. The phrase refers to California’s 1982 gubernatorial election, when the late Tom Bradley, a black Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, led in exit polls against white Republican George Deukmejian. Mr. Bradley lost the election. The conclusion: Some voters hid their true choice from pollsters."

The effect, which has circulated in California political circles for decades, has gone national. But there’s one problem — it probably isn’t true.

Did some Californians vote against Bradley because he was black? Of course. But did hidden racism decide one of the closest gubernatorial elections in California history, which Deukmejian won by fewer than 100,000 votes? It’s highly unlikely.

The basis for the theory is that Bradley was leading in the polls right up to Election Day, yet lost the election. What Bradley Effect theorists miss is that the polls were actually quite accurate — as far as they went. Bradley won among voters who cast ballots on Election Day, as "exit polling" of voters confirmed. Based on those polls, in fact, many news outlets immediately declared Bradley the winner.

Bradley lost narrowly, however, when absentee votes mailed before the election were counted. The Deukmejian campaign had exploited newly liberalized absentee voting rules and organized a vote-by-mail turnout campaign that was especially effective among gun owners opposed to a gun control measure on the same ballot.

Finally, the story of the 1982 election is not that Bradley was the victim of a hidden anti-black vote, but that he did so well during an era in which Republicans had the upper hand. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown lost his 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate (to Republican Pete Wilson) by five times the margin Bradley lost the governorship and Republicans dominated top-of-the-ticket elections throughout the 1980s in California.


E-mail Dan Walters at dwalters(at)sacbee.com