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Obama and the Bradley Effect

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We are just months away from what would be a massive international story that will reverberate for decades. Senator Barack Obama, an African American, is the favorite to be the next president of the United States. An Obama presidency immediately changes, literally and figuratively, the face America presents to the world. Winning the presidency, however, will require Obama to continue to walk a very fine racial tightrope that requires his silence on race-based issues facing the country. His fear is that there are enough White voters who will, if properly primed, get cold feet and resist the urge to vote for him. The racial reality in which Obama campaigns is unfortunate for the country because it appears that the opportunity to engage in a serious, solutions-focused discussion of America's racial ills will be left by the roadside as the country drives toward the next inauguration. This is an important opportunity missed and one which should be lamented.

That disappointment notwithstanding, there may be some racial topics that cannot be avoided, with the Bradley Effect likely to be high on the list. The Bradley Effect refers to a phenomenon that began to emerge in the 1980s in which White voters lie to pollsters about whom they will support because they don't want to appear to be racially biased against Black candidates. The impact of this phenomenon renders worthless the public opinion polls used to handicap some races featuring Black candidates challenging Whites. Not all Black candidates are impacted by this phenomenon. Those that are fall into two categories: Black candidates with substantial leads within a few days of the election yet lose, and those who win by much closer margins than the polls indicated. With the Bradley Effect, even winners can be losers as the victorious Black candidate enters office with less of a mandate and, therefore, may not have the political will or backing to push for significant change from the status quo.

The Bradley Effect is named for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley following his 1982 losing bid to win the California governor's race. After all the dust settled and the shock of the outcome began to wear off, it emerged that there were White voters told pollsters they were voting for Bradley but, instead, voted for his opponent, Republican Attorney General George Deukmejian. Bradley was the long serving and well-regarded mayor of Los Angeles when he challenged Deukmejian for the governorship. Bradley was an inoffensive moderate and no one confused him with a scary Black nationalist.

Three weeks before the election, Bradley led Deukmejian by 14 percentage points. Two weeks before the election, as the polling showed a tightening race, Deukmejian campaign manager Bill Roberts said a hidden anti-black vote would put the Republican over the top if he trailed in the polls by five percentage points or less. "It's just a fact of life," Roberts told reporters. "If people are going to vote that way, they are certainly not going to announce it to a survey taker." While Roberts' sentiment is unlikely to exist in the same volume today it did as a generation ago, it may still apply in enough of the country to keep Obama, the clear frontrunner, from winning the presidency.

The Bradley Effect has impacted numerous races. A Washington Post poll had Virginia Lt. Governor L. Douglas Wilder leading his Republican rival, J. Marshall Coleman, by 14 points one week before his 1989 gubernatorial election; a Richmond Times-Dispatch poll had the margin at nine points. He won by four-tenths of one percent. Harold Washington led by 14 points in three major polls taken within two weeks of his 1983 Chicago mayoral victory (one of the polls was completed two days before the election). He won by 3.4 percentage points. David Dinkins led Rudolph Giuliani by 14 and 18 points, respectively, in New York Daily News/ABC and New York Observer polls taken within a week of his 1989 New York City mayoral election. He won by two percentage points. Even big wins can be effected. Carol Moseley Braun led her Republican opponent, Richard Williamson by margins ranging from 17 to 20 points in three major polls taken within a week of her 1992 Illinois Senate election. She won by 10 points.

Could the Bradley Effect rear its ugly head in November and keep the White House in Republican hands? Sure. No responsible observer would argue otherwise. I think it's always a mistake to act as if race isn't a factor in elections. America's history in this regard does not earn us the benefit of the doubt in this election. Unfortunately, there is no way of reliably quantifying what impact this phenomenon could have in November.

It's easy to see a scenario in which a close contest could open the door for race to be the deciding factor. If John McCain is within a few points in mid-October -- despite the continued poor state of the economy, the home foreclosure crisis, inept Wall Street growth and increasing unemployment, the ridiculous loss of blood and treasure in Iraq, the continued involvement in Afghanistan, and the historic unpopularity of President Bush and his Republican enablers in Congress -- then Obama could be in trouble. At that point, the door will be opened to what political strategists and honest observers have long known: that a latent, sub-rosa racism exists and could reveal itself at the ballot box.

We may already be seeing signs of trouble. General election polling is beginning to show wild swings that could suggest problems for Obama. Notwithstanding the late breaking events that swung New Hampshire toward Hillary Clinton despite polling showing a clear Obama win, the science of polling usually gets it right. So far, the polls are all over the place. The recently released Newsweek poll has Obama leading McCain by three points; Obama had a 15-point lead one month ago in the same poll. There hasn't been enough news from either campaign to justify the wide polling variance. Moreover, a CBS-New York Times poll showed that just 30 percent of White voters have a favorable opinion of Obama. This is astonishing considering the overwhelmingly positive media coverage he has received since he burst onto the national stage with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech.

In a close contest, it may only take one or two states unexpectedly falling out of the Obama column to cost him the election. A steady diet of Obama-is-the-most-liberal-senator, coupled with a dash of Obama-is-really-a-Muslim-and-unpatriotic-too may be the right ingredients to keep the race close and allow the Bradley Effect to be a factor in the outcome. Obama must build a substantially large lead to reduce the likelihood that the Bradley Effect could make him a loser in November.

Worrying about the Bradley Effect while ignoring other important issues that have racial dimensions is one of the disappointing features of this presidential campaign. America has a very low tolerance level for uncomfortable conversations about race. Yes, race is discussed, but too often it is done in a largely reactionary way that does nothing to illuminate the racial issues that impact the country. Race-biased voting has a long, sad, and enduring link to our politics and culture and it was my hope that Barack Obama's presidential campaign would be brave enough to bring the country toward a more intelligent and honest discussion about the eternal pink elephant sitting in the corner of America's living room. Instead, what we have been given is a discussion of racial controversies, but not the underlying causes of racial tensions. So we've been fed "What does Obama do about Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger?" or "Isn't it great that Obama 'transcends' race" rather than discussing the other issues such as the fact that African Americans comprise 46 percent of the 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States. I would love a full-throated discussion of all the reasons for this disparity as well as all of the potential remedies.

Silence on racial issues represents nothing more than a capitulation to comity over dealing with serious issues. It's bad for the country whenever a quiet but, ultimately, unhealthy, status quo triumphs over a contentious, but honest, quest for truth and reconciliation. Unfortunately, Obama has judiciously avoided any real attempt to take his enormous popularity and move the country from its comfortable position of benign neglect of racial issues toward the difficult, but ultimately healing, national conversation we must have. His much lauded "race speech" in Philadelphia was rhetorical cotton candy -- the sort of good tasting pass time that ultimately provides no nutrition. It also represents a missed opportunity to lead the country into a new conversation on race and racism.

The "race" speech and the extent to which the campaign has avoided "Black issues" strikes me as a tacit admission that the country may not be as open on race as he claims in his speeches. Perhaps he's campaign fears a potential Bradley Effect. I think the campaign should speak more openly about the potential impact of the Bradley Effect. It should smoke out those voters who may walk one direction, but vote another. The voters that fuel the Bradley Effect should internal discomfort when they go to the ballot box in November.

Racism is the bully in the schoolyard of American politics and culture. One does not overcome a bully by ignoring it but, rather, by confronting it and exposing it for what it is. Let's hope that this campaign sparks the much needed conversation the nation must have to overcome the most unrelenting of American bullies.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote.

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