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Daniel Okrent Headshot

Bradley Who? Here Comes the Obama Effect

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Everyone knows about the dreaded Bradley Effect: the phenomenon that leaves white voters loath to tell pollsters they won't vote for a black candidate. There's been a lot of fretting about this recently -- fretting, I find, that correlates with age: the older you are, the more likely you are to believe the Bradley Effect will turn up in this election. Here are some reasons Democrats needn't be overly worried, in ascending order of importance:

1. The event that gave the BE its name -- the 1982 California gubernatorial election, when Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles, polled well and then lost resoundingly -- took place 26 years ago. Don't you think the world has changed a little bit since then, especially regarding tolerance? Consider a prejudice once thought to be even more intense than racial prejudice: If we've made even a quarter of the progress in racial matters that we have in issues regarding sexuality, that alone turns the Bradley Effect on its ear.

2. There are 60 million Americans of voting age who hadn't yet reached the age of eight in 1982. Don't you think their racial attitudes are different from the people who have disappeared from the voting roles in that time -- namely, their dead grandparents?

3. Tennessee, 2006: The Democratic candidate for the Senate was a black man, Harold Ford. Tennessee hadn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1990. George Bush carried the state in 2004 by a 14 point margin. Republicans ran an ad, right before Election Day, suggesting that Ford had a taste for white women. In this very red state, with a black population of only 17%, Ford lost by just 3 percentage points. More to the point, he did better in the election than in the pre-election polling.

4. One recent, ill-conceived analysis suggests that 6% of people polled will not admit that they will not vote for a black man. Ask yourself: even if this were accurate, how many of them would be likely to vote for a liberal Democrat anyway? How many of them live in states that McCain is going to carry no matter what, like Texas or Mississippi? How many live in states that Obama is going to carry no matter what, like New York or California?

5. Finally, and most importantly, isn't there another shoe to drop on this issue -- namely, the number of people who will vote for Obama because he's black? I'm not talking about white voters who think it's time for a black president, or who want to feel good about their own racial attitudes -- those are Democratic voters in any case. I'm talking about the increased turnout among black voters. In recent elections, 51% of registered blacks voters showed up at the polls. Do you think that number will be up 10%? 20%? More? So do I. And that's just registered black voters. Registration of new black voters in states like Virginia and North Carolina has been one of the Obama organization's most notable accomplishments.

As a result, I'm looking for the debut of the Obama Effect -- a level of increased participation among black voters that may change the electoral map for years to come.

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