Why the Bradley Effect Is Not the Obama Effect

A new column refuting the very idea of the "the Bradley Effect" – the notion that a measurable number of

A new column refuting the very idea of the "the Bradley Effect" – the notion that a measurable number of white voters won’t tell pollsters that they are against a black candidate but will turn out on Election Day to vote against that candidate – is getting some attention today.

The term was coined after the 1982 California gubernatorial election, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost what appeared to be a sizable polling lead on Election Day to white Republican George Deukmejian, who won the race by 50,000 votes. It’s been in vogue this year to cite that election as a possible model for the current presidential race, with pundits regularly speculating that Barack Obama might suffer the same fate in November.

But Lance Tarry, who served as Deukmejian’s ’82 pollster, makes a strong case that the effect is overstated. He notes that polls showed Deukmejian steadily closing the gap in the weeks leading up to the election (he’d trailed by double-digits a month before the election) and that Deukmejian ended up winning because of a wide absentee ballot advantage, as opposed to hordes of white voters showing up on Election Day to vote against the black candidate.

His full column in well worth reading and contains many valid points. As I’ve noted before, analysts have been much too quick to invoke the Bradley Effect this year, when there really hasn’t been any rational evidence to support it.

It should be said that Tarry’s effort to portray the theory of the Bradley Effect as the product of flawed post-election analysis in 1982 lets the Deukmejian campaign off the hook too easily.

Long before Election Day ’82, Deukmejian’s own campaign manager, Bill Roberts, pointedly raised the issue of a white backlash against Bradley. In early October, with one poll giving Bradley a 15-point lead, Roberts told reporters that the gap was deceptively wide because white voters were masking their opposition to a black candidate when contacted by pollsters.

"If we are down only 5 points or less in the polls at election time," Roberts said, "we’re going to win. It’s just a fact of life.’"

With Bradley bidding to become the first black governor of the largest state in the country (less than 20 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed), the California race was already attracting national attention. Roberts’ comment earned coast-to-coast coverage, further injecting Bradley’s race into the campaign dialogue. Ultimately, Deukmejian fired Roberts, but the record should show that public discussion of the Bradley Effect was launched by Deukmejian’s campaign a month before the election – not by pundits after the fact, as Tarry suggests.

Still, there’s very good reason to believe that race wasn’t the primary reason for Bradley’s collapse in ’82. After all, he ran a sloppy campaign and wasn’t a particularly effective candidate on the stump.

By contrast, Obama’s campaign is far more focused and better run, and benefits from numerous built-in advantages (eight years of Bush, awful economy, unpopular war) that Bradley lacked. That should make for a more durable lead, even if the McCain forces — like Deukmejian’s in ’82 — try to stoke racial fears.

Why the Bradley Effect Is Not the Obama Effect