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The "Fluke Effect": Remember Tom Bradley?

03/15/2012 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2012

The repercussions of Rush Limbaugh's truly ugly attacks on Susan Fluke won't be known until November. But if you can remember back to 1982, there was a voter phenomenon, "The Bradley Effect," that has lingered in the public consciousness ever since, and may well come into play in 2012.

Tom Bradley was a popular, able and politically skilled mayor of Los Angeles. He was the Democratic candidate for governor against a Republican who trailed him in the polls every step of the way, including in the exit polls on election day. He lost. A theory developed that many white voters, when polled, would not confess to voting against the black man, it was called "The Bradley Effect." Similar phenomena seemed to affect Harold Washington in Chicago, David Dinkins in New York and Doug Wilder in Virginia. It seemed that black candidates needed a polling margin of close to 10% to be assured of victory. The theory popped up again in 2008 when Barack Obama apparently suffered a the same fate in the New Hampshire primary. And similar, non-racial theories exist elsewhere, particularly in Britain where the "Shy Tory Effect" seemed to explain Labor Party losses to the Conservatives after leading substantially in the polls.

Well, welcome to the Year of the "Fluke Effect," which may have already and quietly decided the election.

Limbaugh crystallized in the minds of many women, including lots of Republican and Independent voters, that they were personally under attack. Not politically or ideologically or religiously or morally, but personally in the way they live and in the personal and private choices they make every day.

It wasn't just the extraordinarily vicious language, the throwing around of words like "slut" and "prostitute" against a young woman who supported insurance coverage for contraception. It was the creeping expansion of the Republican moral argument against abortion to include contraception.

The American people remain almost exactly divided on the moral and legal status of abortion, both men and women. Active pro-choice and pro-life movements keep it in the public and political eye, and each election provides different results. The 2010 cycle anti-abortion Republicans to try to repeal Roe v. Wade and to and to attempt to enact requirements for physically invasive abortion procedures. On abortion seemed like a line had been crossed, from strong advocacy to force and compulsion.

Against that background, the Republicans started to (probably accidently) expand the anti-abortion argument to include contraception. First, there was a rush to ban the "morning-after" pill, led by front-runner Mitt Romney. He opposed "contraceptives, morning-after pills, in other words abortive pills" and all else followed. Senate Republicans forced a vote on whether employers could deny employees access to contraception. That crossed a second line and contraception, not abortion, became the issue. Polls showed Americans opposed that restriction by about a two to one margin.

Contraception and abortion are not politically equivalent, and many many women understood that their life choices had been plunged into the presidential race. The pursuit of hard-right voters dulled Mitt's political sensibility and his memory. (As governor he had supported employer coverage of contraception.) But the deed is done, the consequences roll out. There is no "morning-after" pill for Mitt.

So the prediction here is that women voters, especially independents and Republicans, irrespective of their views on abortion, will quietly and decisively punish the eventual Republican candidate. And that polling will not reveal the depth and breadth of the pattern. The "Bradley Effect" will become the "Fluke Effect." And if I'm right, the 2012 election has been already decided by a trio made up of a well-spoken and tough young woman, a presidential candidate with a tin ear, and a bully who crossed a line.