Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Writing the Obituary for Bradley Effect is Premature and Foolhardy

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama has never publicly made mention of the Bradley Effect. The Bradley Effect is the label that’s been plopped onto the penchant of many white voters to shade, deceive or just plain lie to pollsters and interviewers when they tell them that color doesn’t mean anything to them in an election. The only thing they claim they look at is the competence and experience of the candidates in an election. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corp.poll released on Martin Luther King', Jr.'s birthday nearly three out of four whites say America's ready for a black president, presumably that means they'd vote for Obama without batting an eye.

After Obama’s breakthrough win in the Iowa caucus election and his narrow loss in New Hampshire, two of the whitest voting states, political experts trumpeted that the vote for Obama was close to that of his numbers in the final polls. They gleefully rushed to write the obituary for the Bradley Effect. They moved to fast. The Bradley Effect is alive and well, and it appeared to be very much in play in Nevada. Hillary Clinton trounced Obama among the state’s white voters. Obama got the overwhelming backing of black voters and that markedly bumped up his vote totals. But they make up less than one in five of the state’s black voters.

The white vote or lack of it that Obama got in Nevada is far more representative and ominous for Obama than the white votes he got in Iowa or New Hampshire. Many Iowa Democrats are independent, populist leaning, and have broken ranks in the past with the Democratic Party’s odds on favored candidates. Obama also got a huge boost from young voters. They were fired up enough by his change message, relative youth and the novelty of his campaign to flood the polls for him. In New Hampshire, legions of voters are independent, even contrarian, in who and how they pick their candidates. But Nevada was a far different story.

Bush won Nevada twice but Bill Clinton also won the state in 1996. At first glance, the state is a political oddity when stacked up against the rock solid GOP states to the North and to the East of Nevada. Its relative political flexibility also makes it a state that seems very much in play for the Democrats. Thousands of the state's voters are young, and could be considered moderate Democrats. But that’s what makes it even more troubling for Obama. A big cornerstone of his pitch is to younger, moderate Democrats, and independents. He has done everything possible to tailor his message, style, persona, and even the appearances he makes in the most racially neutral way possible. There is absolutely no chance that there will be a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton sighting in his campaign at least in the swing states.

That’s wise. They would be the political kiss of death for him if there is even the vaguest hint that they are visible in his campaign or too enthusiastically cheer lead his campaign. In fact Sharpton hasn’t endorsed Obama, and Jackson's endorsement has been perfunctory. He has even criticized him a couple of times. Their noticeable hands off his campaign are tacit recognition of the Bradley Effect. Their active involvement in it or even favorable words by them about it could stir the Bradley Effect.

Though Obama has said nothing publicly about the Bradley Effect, he is very much aware that it derailed Bradley’s drive to be the nation's first black governor in modern times, caused Doug Wilder to sweat nervously on Election night in Virginia before he squeaked out a win there for governor in 1989, and helped do in Harvey Gantt and Harold Ford, Jr. in their Senate campaigns in North Carolina and Tennessee. It wreaked havoc in other campaigns where a black has squared off face to face with a white candidate.

Though there's no proof that the Bradley Effect played any role in Obama's defeat in New Hampshire, Obama campaign insiders admit that they are keeping a hawk like eye out for any sign that it could crop up and hurt their man. They’re smart to do that. The plain truth is that if Obama bagged every black vote in every state it wouldn’t insure him the Democratic nomination, let alone the White House. White males still make up nearly forty percent of the American electorate, and older white women make up a big bloc of voters, and the majority of them are Democrats. He can’t win without their votes.

The Bradley Effect is murky, amorphous, and virtually defies fingering. Yet, it will cause nervous moments for Obama’s campaign when it rolls into the South and the other Western and heartland states. There’s a lot of campaign left. To write the obituary for the Bradley Effect is premature, and worse, foolhardy.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008