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Inside The "Bradley Effect"

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Will the "Bradley effect" bring down Barack Obama, seen here after his Wednesday night debate win?

Barack Obama has won all three presidential debates over John McCain. He has a solid lead in the polls. What could go wrong for him? Well, many say the polls could be wrong, skewed by a hidden racist vote.

The "Bradley effect" -- the notion that white voters lie to pollsters when a black candidate is in the race -- has become widely known. But what you think you know from the campaign that gave rise to the phrase, then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's ultimately near-miss race for governor of California in 1982, isn't so.

I was in the middle of that, doing opposition research for Bradley's campaign. I vividly recall election day that November, as reports from the exit polling done by California's leading polling organization, the Field Poll, circulated. It seemed that Bradley, the first black mayor of Los Angeles, was headed for a big win as California's first black governor. A girlfriend advised me -- in my kid, pre-Armani days -- to get a better tie to go along with my blue blazer and slacks to better impress the high command at the victory party that night in downtown LA's Biltmore Hotel.

Tom Bradley was the first African American mayor west of the Mississippi. He served as mayor of Los Angeles for 20 years.

When eight o'clock rolled around, with my spiffy new tie firmly in place, the formal projection of the Field Poll based on its exit polling came onto TV screens across California: Tom Bradley over Republican Attorney General George Deukmejian, by a whopping 10 points!

But it quickly became apparent that something was wrong. The raw vote coming in didn't reflect this projected Bradley landslide. As the night dragged on, it seemed shockingly apparent that Bradley could end up losing.

Which Bradley ultimately did, losing by one point, with Deukmejian the victor, 49% to 48%. How could Field's exit poll have been so wrong? It must have been racism, right?

Well, only if California voters also thought that two-term Governor Jerry Brown was black, too.

The Field Poll made two big projections based on its exit polling that fateful November night. Bradley as the next governor of California. And Brown as the next U.S. senator.

But Brown lost, too. And pretty much everyone knew he was white. Brown's race actually wasn't as close as Bradley's, with then San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson defeating Brown, 51% to 45%.

Talking with Brown yesterday, he said that he had trailed Wilson pretty much throughout the campaign. And had been surprised by the election night projection of a relatively easy win for him.

Brown had been a controversial if shrewd governor, winning re-election by 20 points. But he ran for president twice during his governorship. The first time entering late and finishing a distant runner-up for the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter. The second time encountering what John Edwards found this year, a race in which two bigger stars left no room for him, in Brown's case having to contend with President Carter and the return of the Kennedys in the form of Senator Ted Kennedy. To maintain traction in the race, Brown adopted less mainstream positions, which did not help him in California. Brown realized after running the Senate race that California voters had simply seen too much of him as a candidate in the '70s and early '80s.

Clearly, the famous exit poll was simply wrong. No racial factor was involved in Jerry Brown's loss to Pete Wilson.

So what went wrong for Tom Bradley?

First, there was a hotly controversial initiative on the ballot, Proposition 15, which would have banned new handgun sales in California. Anyone who didn't have his or her pistol or revolver by April 1983 was out of luck when it came to handgun ownership. This proved to be wildly unpopular, and went down to a massive defeat, 63% to 37%. Deukmejian, helped by a huge campaign by the National Rifle Association, targeted rural and suburban voters heavily on this issue.

Second, the Deukmejian campaign was much more aggressive than the Bradley campaign. Bradley, a stately mayor of Los Angeles, ran a stately campaign. He was the front-runner and he acted like he was the winner.

Some damaging information was uncovered on Deukmejian. But Bradley refused to use most of it, insisting on a high-minded campaign. Mindful of his perceived need not to appear too aggressive as a black man, Bradley employed a kid gloves approach with Deukmejian in debate.

And on the campaign trail, well, on the campaign trail Bradley spent the final weekend of the election traveling around California thanking people for supporting him.

Meanwhile, the attack ads and mailers by Deukmejian and the NRA whirred away all the while.

That doesn't sound like Barack Obama's campaign, does it?

Bradley actually did win in the vote cast in polling places around the state on election day, though not by 10 points. But he lost badly in the absentee ballots, which Republicans targeted heavily.

Were there voters who simply would not vote for a black man, even a former police lieutenant and successful mayor of one of the nation's largest cities, in that 1982 California election? Undoubtedly. But it's clear that the problem lay not with significant numbers of voters lying to pollsters, but with the nature of the campaign itself. Whatever anti-black vote existed, Deukmejian already had it. The event that gave rise to the famous "Bradley effect" was created by faulty polling.

Bradley went on serve another nine years as LA's mayor, a record 20 years in all, before passing away in 1998. Bradley ran again for governor against Deukmejian in 1986, but lost in a landslide. Brown, of course, following his own perception of voter exhaustion with him, withdrew from public life for a time, though he ran a think tank, before returning as chairman of the California Democratic Party, runner-up to Bill Clinton for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, a two-term mayor of Oakland, and now California's attorney general.

You can check things out throughout the day on my blog, New West Notes.