The Bradley Effect

tom-bradley-election.gif

Tom Bradley

Since Obama’s presidential aspirations are beginning to look like they have the possibility of becoming reality, we’re hearing a term in political parlance that we haven’t heard for quite some time. The term I’m referring to is the “Bradley Effect”.

I first heard mention of this phenomenon sometime in January 2008 during the Democratic Presidential Primary. Now, some eight months have passed since January and it seems I can’t tune into any political talk show without hearing it mentioned at least once. So what is this mysterious phenomenon? I checked a couple of sources and here’s what one, Wikipedia, has to say on the topic:

The Bradley Effect – a term characterizing inaccurate voter opinion polls in some American political campaigns between a white candidate and a non-white candidate. Specifically — instances in which such elections saw the non-white candidate significantly under perform with respect to the results predicted by pre-election polls.

In other words, under these conditions, a disproportionately high number of people change their minds between the time they’re polled and the time they actually cast their vote. This is not simply a few voters voting differently than they said they would, which would be accounted for in the margin of error. This is a disproportionate number voters voting differently.

The term was coined when the very popular mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley (shown in photo above), was running for governor of California. Bradley, a Democrat who was black, ran against Republican George Deukmejian, who was white. On the final days before the election, the polls consistently showed Bradley with a lead. His lead was so significant that based on the polling data a number of media outlets projected Bradley the winner and reported this prediction. But on the day of the actual election Bradley lost.

Post-election research indicated that a smaller percentage of white voters actually voted for Bradley than had been predicted in the polls. Similar reports of this phenomenon have been cited when other black candidates have run against white candidates including the mayoral race of David Dinkins of New York and Harold Washington of Chicago.

The bottom line is that statistically significant numbers of white voters will tell pollsters that they are likely to vote for the non-white candidate when, in fact, they do just the opposite when casting their vote. Is there is a connection between this behavior, the acceptance of this behavior, and the ways in which racism is experienced by blacks and browns in their everyday lives?

Conventional wisdom tells us that the practice of racism in the United States has diminished. Depending on who you ask and how you ask it, racism — as it was practiced before the Civil Rights movement — is all but gone. Because so many believe this to be true, it’s also believed that the economic hardships that go hand-in-hand with racial oppression are, too, a thing of the past. According to a recent survey, half of whites believe that the average black person is as well off as the average white person. Unfortunately, this perception doesn’t come close to reality. Black median wealth, in terms of assets, is approximately 16 percent of white median wealth.

While many things have changed since the 60’s, the changes haven’t necessarily resulted in this country moving closer to equality of opportunity for all.

As a black woman living almost entirely in a white world, I am acutely aware of the gap between white and black perceptions of racial equality in America. There are many publications that cater to people of color. They generally address these issues. Publications like Colorlines, a national news magazine, offers great analysis on these kinds of issues as does The Root and The Black Commentator. These are all excellent publications and there are many more excellent sources on the Web.

But when I heard the Bradley Effect being discussed on corporate media outlets like “This Week with George Stephanopolis” and then again on CNN and MSNBC, I was alerted to something new. White people — white pundits — were discussing this phenomenon. Yes, they were discussing it very matter-of-factly, without a hint of outrage or compassion which is somewhat troubling but, unlike many of the social ills that are rooted racial discrimination and lack of opportunity, the Bradley Effect is being acknowledged by mainstream corporate media for what it is, Racism.

And it is being discussed openly and frequently. For example, in preparing for this writing, I googled the term. The Google search resulted in more than 49,000 returns from a variety of media outlets, some devoting entire segments to this “phenomenon.”

From print media like The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist, to television media like PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer to the blogosphere — Huffington Post, Salon.com, Politico – all of these outlets had covered this topic within the last 8-10 months and this is the short list.

So, although polling data suggests that whites in America and people of color differ significantly in their opinion of the state of racial equality, there seems to be consensus, at least among the mostly white political punditry and people of color, that racism, at least as it is expressed in the Bradley Effect, is real, is not negligible and has real implications. (see video on the “Bradley Effect”)

Eradicating racism in America is one of our country’s greatest challenges. It is at the core of many of the social ills that plague this country yet it rarely gets the attention it merits. We often hear about high rates of crime in the inner city. These kinds of stories sensationalize tragedy and sell newspapers but the coverage is not designed to educate or enlighten the public. We rarely hear about research projects that uncover grave inequities occurring nationwide – inequities such as the recent research project that found that white men who claim to have a criminal record and to have served prison time are equally or slightly more likely to get a call-back for a job interview than black men who claim to have no criminal record, even when all other credentials are equal.

One of the unintentional positive benefits I am experiencing as a result of Obama’s popularity is because of the news media’s constant coverage of him, if for no other reason other than their need to fill up the air with news coverage 24/7, they are starting to talk about race. The question we all should ask is why is it that a candidate has to be anything other than white before we feel the need to bring race discussions to the table but that’s a whole different article. The point is that we, as a nation, are talking about one of our biggest and most enduring problems and this is a good thing for us all.

sharon-kyle.gifLet’s face it, I wouldn’t have written this article if it were not for the major media outlets discussing the Bradley Effect. Because they discussed it, more people will discuss it and maybe, just maybe, we’ll all get closer to seeing the situation in a similar light. And that might put us on the road to healing and ultimately to equality of opportunity for all.

Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. She can be reached at dick_and_sharon@laprogressive.com.

Other articles by Sharon:

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Comments

  1. George Tucker says

    There is no perfect remedy, but people who become aware of their own unconscious prejudices can sometimes learn to compensate (and perhaps overcompensate) or even eliminate them. My parents were as racist as most whites of their generation, so I absorbed the prejudices despite consciously knowing better from early teenage years. I doubt the prejudice will disappear, but I found that remembering the result of the Harvard Implicit Association test helps counteract it.

    The Harvard Project Implicit test for unconscious racism is easily available to anyone with an internet connection. takes only a few minutes, and has some merit. If everyone would take it, the voting booth effect might be significantly reduced. It should be widely publicized.

    Messing with minds can be a good thing.

    Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/, click “Demonstration,” then click “Go to the Demonstration Tests,” then “I wish to proceed,” then select “Skin-tone IAT.” Or skip a couple of steps by going directly to
    https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/takeatest.html

    • Sharon Kyle says

      George,

      Thank you for your comment and for mentioning this valuable tool. The test you mention is excellent and there are several other types of biases tested on that website as well.

      As a person who has been subjected to racism, it is understandable why I am interested in this topic. I am always curious about white males (especially those born before 1965) who share an interest in this topic.

      The LA Progressive covers a broad range of topics. I have the ability to track which articles get the most attention. It’s been several months since we went on-line and the visitors trends have now become predictable.

      Unless the piece written is about my personal experiences with racism, it won’t get much traction. As much as I wish this weren’t true, this lack of interest is translated by blacks and browns to mean that whites just don’t care to find out how they participate in perpetuating racism (even on an unconcious level).

      Sharon

  2. Elizabeth Nichols says

    Hi: I actually worked for Bradley … There were more factors here than just people not telling the truth to the pollsters as Frank Russo has said…

    The handgun initiative activated the conservative pro-gun crowd to vote republican… No question about it… It blindsided the Bradley folks…

    Also I agree about the gotv of minorities. Bradley’s campaign staff suffered from a surfeit of optimism (polite euphenism for arrogance) and did not get out the vote in the cities especially in the Oakland area… As a friend of mine who was also a volunteer said they were too busy picking out their offices in the State Capitol building… The person in charge of getting out the vote in Oakland never left his desk in L.A….

    Bradley spent a lot of money on his campaign most of it going to salaries for the people who were supposed to help him win… Not well spent in my book. They really did not perform. I got the general impression it was amateur hour, and they really didn’t know what they were doing…. They certainly were utilizing the volunteers correctly.

    And where was the State Democratic Party??? I was only a volunteer but I never heard of any state party officials actually going out into the hinterlands and getting out the vote for Bradley….

    One of the more unbelievable things that happened to me was that for Bradley’s second run for governor I was told that they wanted “young” people on the campaign staff, and that I was too old…

    Lesson here about polls is that they are useful, not infallible, and there are many other factors that come into play during an election.

    Elizabeth Knipe Nichols

  3. says

    I wrote an article (http://www.californiaprogressreport.com/2008/01/the_bradley_eff.html) after the New Hampshire primary on the California Progress Report when the Bradley effect was bandied about as one of the reasons why Obama did not win that contest despite polls predicting that he did. Your article raises important points. I would caution folks about some of the complexity in the historical facts. From my earlier article:

    “While the 1982 California gubernatorial contest is not the only race where the race of the candidate has been thought to be a factor in polling gone awry, there are a number of other reasons why the Field Poll may not have been accurate. I spoke with Mark DiCamillo, Director of the Field Poll—whose phone has been ringing off the hook about this today. He told me that there was a memo done by the polling organization shortly after the election to try to understand what had occurred (not available online as it predated the internet) that identified four possible factors:

    1. A late shift in voter preference after the poll, which could have reflected bias.
    2. A well organized GOP absentee ballot program (Bradley won the day of election results).
    3. The presence of a handgun initiative on the same ballot that brought out a skewed electorate different from the model used to predict likely voters.
    4. Lower turnout by minorities because Bradley did not turn out the base of black voters.”

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Frank,

      Thank you for your comment. While all of the factors you’ve noted are important to consider when doing a detailed analysis of what actually happened back in 1982, my article focuses (or at least I tried to focus) on the way in which racism is often discounted, dismissed or minimized in contemporary discourse as if it were a thing of the past.

      I used the Bradly Effect to emphasize a point. Racism is still alive and well in the U.S. and is still impacting the lives of mostly black and brown people everyday. I thought it ironic that the same institution (the mainstream corporate media) that, for the most part, ignores this problem openly even matter-of-factly talks about the Bradley Effect almost as if its occurence is limited to the voting box. These very same people who cannot find a way to vote for a black person are often managers at places of employment, doctors, teachers, etc. These very same people affect my life in a big way.

      Sharon

  4. Thomas Finnell says

    It may indeed be the Bradley effect. It may also be election fraud. Go find Greg Palast’s book Armed Madhouse. Look for the latest printing which includes the GOP’s plans to steal 2008.

    • Bob Haskell says

      I have an alternative version of the way things might go. I hope and pray we’ve come far enough since the elections of ’82, to see a reverse Bradley effect, where white people in their heart of hearts want to vote for Obama but are reluctant to admit it.

      Maybe, just maybe, some people who’ve said they won’t vote for Obama because we just “aren’t ready” for a black president – or whatever other self-deceptive reason they dredge up to justify their unwillingness to vote for him – just might, once they’re alone, vote for Obama, as the only sane choice, overcoming their racism in the private moment of choice.

      The “reverse Tom Bradley effect”… Given the drastic consequences and importance of this year’s choice, it just might go that way.

      I quote below from “Dr. Gail” at http://commentsfromleftfield.com/2008/09/the-bradley-effect-in-reverse#comment-43976:

      “Think about someone responding to a phone poll. Chances are, the person on the phone is not alone. They may be surrounded by family members or friends. Even if they are alone at the time, being included in a national poll is a noteworthy event for most people and likely to be mentioned to family members, coworkers, and/or friends when the opportunity arises.
      So the poll-taker — a disembodied voice over the telephone — is not the only audience involved. In fact, I might argue that the poll-taker is the least important person in the mix.
      As views about race and race relations are in flux, it’s reasonable to infer that family groupings or workplace groupings or friend groupings do not change all at once. So there’s always going to be some tension. One member of the family might be colorblind, but don’t let Grandpa hear you speak highly of a black man or there’ll be hell to pay. Or something like that.
      Voting, on the other hand, is a truly private activity. Asking someone who they voted for is akin to inquiring about the specifics of one’s sex life — it is only to be undertaken by true intimates. (Plus, one can always lie. . .but I digress.)
      This sets up the potential for a “Reverse Bradley Effect”, in which someone tells the pollster that he or she would not vote for Obama, yet actually pulls the lever (or mark the spot or, God forbid, touch the screen) for Obama come election day. And no one would be the wiser”.

      Although I would add, the person who let him/herself vote his/her heart would indeed be wiser, for having obeyed the inner sense of what’s true and right.

  5. Karen Wingard says

    Sharon, as one who remembers the Bradley – Deukmejian election back in ’86, I have to point out that what troubles me about current discussion of a “Bradley Effect” is that the discussion somewhat mirrors an aspect of news coverage we experienced back then. It seemed every time there was a mention of Tom Bradley, it was not necessarily mentioned that he was a popular and effective Mayor of the state’s largest city, but always it was mentioned that he would, if elected, be California’s first black governor. So even if the television feed didn’t reach California’s most remote rural counties, there could be no mistake that even if you agreed with Bradley on all the issues, he was one of “those” people. To me that ongoing undertone was little more than a covert appeal to not so latent racist tendencies. I hope the so-called Bradley Effect is reversed this year. We can’t afford the alternative!
    Karen

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Karen,

      This is an excellent observation. A comment coming from a party leader, such as yourself, carries a lot of weight because I know that you know what you are talking about.

      We’d love to hear more from you and people like you about this issue. And not just during campaigns when a person of color is on the ballot. If there is an effort underway to subliminally insert the fear that one of “those” people is running for office, it would be thwarted if the American people were dealing with this issue on a regular basis.

      By avoiding discussions of the topic of racism in America we open the door for it to be used in the way you suggest. I say let’s keep talking.

      Sharon

  6. Tighe Barry says

    thank you for this article..i was, and still am saddened by the fact that this great party of the people, inclusive not exclusive was unable to use the perfect time in our primary to finnally once and for all discuss the two most troubleing and important issues in this country: race and gender bias, discrimination and hate. please, i don’t want to use race and gender as an issue, i want to declare that it is the issue. if we can’t talk truth to out dated, evil, useless and stuntting our growth as an nation such as these issues, how are we going to be able to speak truth to power. tighe

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Tighe,

      I couldn’t agree with you more. But the blindness to this issue is as prevalent now as it was in 1850, 1900, and 1950. In all of those years, when polls were taken, whites overwhelmingly said we do not have a race problem in this country.

      I’ll continue to write about this. But even though it has been demonstrated that whites and people of color have very different opinions when asked about this issue, whenever I write about it, our website gets more hits than usual. As long as somebody is reading I’ll keep writing.

      Sharon

  7. Linda B says

    I hope you are right. I feel that times are different; and that Senator Obama, will become our President’08. Mainly because of his opponent Senator McCain, campaign that appears to be a third Bush term. I think the Country is ready for change. Not that they have suddenly become color-blinded, but because of the War in Iraq, the economy, high fuel cost, etc. Additionally, Senator Obama’s campaign that talks about unity. Since we are all in this mess together; regardless to color, gender, etc. We all need CHANGE!

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Linda,

      I’m with you. But what I find puzzling about the Bradley Effect is that the same media that avoids talking about racism any other time openly discusses it now but not so that we can look for solutions but to point out that Obama is dealing with an issue that McCain will never deal with.

      It’s so frustrating especially when you consider that there are people who deal with this everyday. (I know, I’m one of them).

      Sharon

  8. Richard M. Mathews says

    I also think (hope) we might see a Reverse Bradley Effect in this election.

    Polls are based on models that try to guess who is a likely voter and who is not. If the turnout is different than the model, the poll is useless.

    With Sen. Obama creating enormous excitement among those who do not often turn out to vote, including many blacks and many young people, I think we have a possibility of getting turnout that breaks all the models. The models do not work for a celebrity (;-) who can bring out tens or hundreds of thousands of people to hear a political speech.

    We have to work hard to really get this turnout. If we do, the polls may be very wrong indeed. Sen. Obama may be heading to an historic landslide victory.

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Richard,

      Thanks for your insightful comment. If anyone is right on this, a Caltech grad should be. Still, I’ve got my fingers crossed.

      Sharon

  9. C. Neiman says

    I have a feeling that this election might produce the first reverse Bradley effect: that many people who would not admit publicly, in earshot of their neighbors, that they would vote for Obama, or for a black candidate, will in fact do so in the secrecy of the voting booth. Just because his decency and goodness appeals to people’s souls. I’m betting on it. Not since Robert Kennedy has such an inspirational man run for president. He’ll get through.

    • Bob Haskell says

      I agree with you completely about Obama’s goodness and the comparison to one of the Kennedys. I wouldn’t exclude the other Kennedy from the comparison, though, and I feel we are within reach of a President who will unite and inspire us as a nation the way John Kennedy did. Maybe we have come a long, painful, full circle since his assassination, and our dark night of the soul is ending.

      I’m betting on it too!

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