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The Bradley Effect


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.

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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,, 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.

Let’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.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

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

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