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Monday, October 13, 2008

Ron Walters on the Bradley Effect: Not to Worry.

My Take on the Bradley Effect

By Ron Walters

As the election has drawn nearer, there has been an inevitable debate about the way in which race will play out, even spoil the result, and in that respect the so-called “Bradley Effect” – whites saying they will vote for a black candidate to pollsters, but not doing so when they go to vote – may play a role. I have been in the camp which says that the Bradley Effect may determine the election, to the point that I doubted Michele Obama who told Larry King on his TV show recently that if there was a Bradley Effect, Barack Obama would not have won the primary election. Trying to reconcile various stains of this complex issue, the primary elections do stand as something of a refutation that is a Bradley Effect at play, but looking deeper, there are other things as well.

I think there is a unique emotional content in this election that is driving it beyond the normal cues we use to determine the outcome of elections. In fact, I have used the term “landslide” several time out of respect for what I have seen on almost every indicator to determine the result of this one. The emotional content I am suggesting consists of several factors. There is the historic possibility that Barack Obama will become the first black President of the United States, a fact that will drive his numbers up from the 87% given John Kerry into the 95% range this time. Then there is the “fed-up” vote, those who are just tired of Republicans screwing up the country and are ready for to vote for a change of course. Finally, there are the latecomers to Obama, made fearful of how the Republicans have mis-managed the economy to the point that their lives are in financial jeopardy.

So, I now feel that most certainly there will be a Bradley Effect, but that it will be overwhelmed by several factors. First, the emotional content of the campaign showed up in the primary election polling. In those states that were over 25% black such as Maryland, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, the polling underestimated the actual turnout of black voters. This makes me conclude that in those states under 25%, pollsters did not accurately sample the smaller black populations.

Second, the Democratic registration advantage that I have alluded to previously is large and growing, and the only question is whether this advantage will be reflected in the turnout. I suggest that the unique emotional quality of this election will propel people to the polls such that this advantage will be reflected in the turnout.

Third, the huge Democratic registration advantage is comprised of a large proportion of young voters who could set records for the manner in which they turnout in this election. They are not being picked up in the polling accurately because of the complexity of contacting them through home phones, since they are mostly cell phone users. Credible surveys (Institute of Politics, Kennedy School, Harvard, others) suggests they will turnout in big numbers, so big they could determine the result.

Fourth, black Republicans voted for George Bush by 11% in the 2004 election, but polls have indicated that they now fluctuate between only 3-5% in their support for John McCain. If 5% of that number shifts into the Democratic column, it could also help to offset any Bradley effect.

A Pew Center survey several months ago suggested that there is no more Bradley effect because the 2006 elections featured black candidates whose election results were little different from the polling results. But we have never been here before with a Black man poised to take over the White House, to be not only the “President of the Nation” but leader of a tribe that is mostly white. This almost anthropological factor gives to this election an unprecedented character and will put us into some uncharted waters when it comes to analyzing the results.

Race is present in this election to the point that every survey this year has told us that whites and blacks still see things very differently in society and that where this election is concerned, there is a strong segment of voters who will use race to vote negatively. So, I am not deluded, the Bradley Effect will be at play, but this is a very special election that is moving many people to consider things more important to them than race. This means that in an election that was more “normal” the Bradley Effect could be determinative, but my take is -- not this time.

Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Leadership Center and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. His latest book is: Freedom is Not Enough, Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics (Rowman and Littlefield.)

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