In 1982, Tom Bradley, the Mayor of Los Angeles and an African-American, ran for Governor of California. Throughout the campaign, Bradley enjoyed a comfortable lead. He lost the election. The clear assumption was that many white voters, who said they favored Bradley when asked by pollsters, succumbed to a deeply ingrained racism when the time came to pull the lever in the voting booth. Enough white voters couldn’t find it in themselves to vote for a black candidate, so Bradley lost.
Ever since, whenever a black candidate has run against a white opponent, the question of The Bradley Effect has been a prominent consideration. How much must you discount the polls when a black candidate is running, and leading a race, against a white opponent? It is a major concern in this election. Some people think Hillary Clinton remained in the race long after it was obvious she wouldn’t win because she was banking on The Bradley Effect. If so, she was wrong, but that was a primary. Only the nomination was at stake. No one was actually voting to make Barack Obama President of the United States.
How will The Bradley Effect influence the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain? The polls show Obama ahead, not only nationally, but also in the key battleground states. In this context, how can we best assess The Bradley Effect?
Three assumptions appear to have merit. First: no one supposes that all white voters face a racial dilemma; Second: no one supposes that all white voters who vote for McCain are racist; Third: no one believes The Bradley Effect isn’t real. Who doesn’t assume that there will be some white voters who will cast their ballot based on race? The important question is: how many? Will the actual number be high enough, in enough key states, to tip the scales?
Put most simply and straightforward – will John McCain win the Presidency because too many white voters vote Republican, against their Democratic inclinations, based on race?
Some may want to point to a reverse Bradley Effect, namely the tendency of black voters, motivated by race, to vote for Obama. Since previous Democrats running for President – every one of whom was white – received 90% or more of the black vote, this so-called reverse Bradley Effect appears not to be an issue. As a Democrat, Obama will get more than 9 of every 10 black votes anyway. One must also consider that black voters represent too small a percentage of the total vote to determine the election’s outcome by themselves.
The questions remains: How far ahead must Obama be in the pre-election polls to survive a racist backlash in the privacy of the voting booth? While everyone who ponders this issue probably has an answer – maybe 3 points, 5 points, 8 or even 10 points - no one knows if theirs is the right answer. And yet, the most shocking aspect of this whole matter may be that while it is very possible that the future of America – perhaps the future of the world – depends upon the size of The Bradley Effect, it appears that no one in the campaign – neither the Democrats nor the Republicans – will address the issue directly.
Perhaps, as it seems to be with so many issues of public concern, it is embedded within our culture; it is The American Way to pretend the issue doesn’t exit and hope it goes away on its own, pray it disappears, vanishes from sight. Maybe, if we don’t dare talk about it, nobody will notice. Maybe it will hide in plain sight. Perhaps, no one wants to recognize that after nearly 400 years, after slavery, a Civil War, Jim Crow and a de facto apartheid society, race still remains the central and unresolved focus in the American culture.