In what ways is Obama ‘different’?

Twenty-five years after he first measured the so-called Bradley effect, Charles Henry weighs in on race, unity, and the perspicacity of Chris Rock

| 29 October 2008

Pop quiz for Electoral College students: What political phenomenon lurked in the shadows for years, basked implausibly in the national media spotlight during the closing weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign, and now — depending on how America casts its ballots on Nov. 4 — will either (a) shock the world by proving the polls and pundits wrong, or (b) retreat back into the darkness, allowing a grateful nation to turn the page to a brighter, more hopeful chapter in U.S. history?

Did someone say “Sarah Palin”? If so, extra homework for you. It’s an axiom of White House elections that Americans always vote for the top of the ticket, never the bottom.

Tom Bradley in the 1980sTom Bradley on the campaign trail in the 1980s (Los Angeles Public Library)

The correct answer is “the Bradley effect.” As anyone within earshot of Wolf Blitzer knows by now, the theory holds that some white voters not only won’t vote for an African American candidate, but that they’ll lie to pollsters rather than admit their bias. Named for Tom Bradley, the Democrat who saw his double-digit lead in the 1982 California governor’s race vaporize on election day, it’s been blamed for vastly overstating the leads of black candidates in any number of city and statewide races. For obvious reasons, it has never before been a factor in a U.S. presidential race.

Since Barack Obama began pulling away from John McCain in the polls, however, the Bradley effect has reared its head — as a certain Alaska governor might say — and invaded America’s airwaves, where it’s become a prime topic of debate. And since the Los Angeles Times mentioned this month that a young Berkeley political scientist, Charles Henry, was the first to measure the effect in 1983, Henry — now the chair of the African American studies department — has been busy explaining the phenomenon to reporters from Switzerland to Singapore.

“Twenty-five years later, people are asking me about it, and I had to look at my draft again to see what it said,” laughs Henry, who published his original research in a small black-studies journal after being turned down by two major political-science reviews. Were it not for the rejections by mainstream journals, “it probably wouldn’t have been 25 years before people said, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who wrote about the Bradley effect.’ ”

Henry’s paper — titled “Racial Factors in the 1982 California Gubernatorial Campaign: Why Bradley Lost” — was a scholarly analysis of how the popular, centrist L.A. mayor’s commanding lead turned to dust on election day, handing the slimmest of victories to Republican George Deukmejian. Nearly every other statewide race that year went to Democrats, with the notable exception of Jerry Brown, who lost his Senate bid to Pete Wilson.

Henry, who sought to control for such factors as increased GOP registrations and the impact of ballot initiatives on the various candidates, found that “race was the major factor in Bradley’s defeat.” Moreover, he wrote, “White voters, particularly Democrats, are often not willing to admit their opposition to Democratic candidates on racial grounds.”

Significantly, the paper also cited the Republican campaign’s use of racial code words — such as “getting tough on crime” — as a covert appeal to white voters. In 2008, Henry notes, we’ve seen similar appeals, not only from John McCain’s campaign — which has made a point of pitting “small-town values” against Obama’s “otherness,” and dubbing Obama’s tax policies “welfare,” among other tactics — but also during the primary season from Bill and Hillary Clinton, who tailored her pitch to what she called “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”

Nonetheless, even some who stipulate the existence of a Bradley effect in 1982 insist that the country has made significant progress in healing its racial divisions since then — as evidenced by Obama’s historic run for the White House — and that it won’t be a factor in 2008. Hasn’t America changed in the past quarter-century?

Beyond the margin of error

“Absolutely,” agrees Henry, an enthusiastic Obama backer who attended the Democratic convention and is editing a book he hopes will appear soon after the election. “And I would be shocked to have a Bradley effect as large as the one that did Bradley in,” or as large as the one that nearly cost Douglas Wilder the Virginia governorship in 1989. (Wilder, an African American, watched his nine-point lead shrink to under half of 1 percent.)

Charles HenryCharles Henry (Peg Skorpinski photo)

“I wouldn’t expect that big a gap,” he says. “But certainly half of that would be a reasonable guess. Because we’re talking about not a mayor or a governor, but a president, a president who can ‘push the button,’ and there’s no precedent for this. And it’s got to make some folks nervous.”

Because race is apt to play a more central role in the campaign in Mississippi, for example, than in California, Henry expects Obama to need a cushion of up to five percentage points beyond the standard margin of error — three to five points in most polls — in order to feel secure. “If it’s close,” he says, “the Bradley effect could make a difference.”

And while pollsters increasingly seek to probe deeper into racial attitudes — getting at the issue indirectly, for example, by asking respondents who say they won’t cast their vote on the basis of race whether they have friends or relatives who might— “you really can’t predict how many people are going to lie to a pollster.”

Even supposed “undecideds” are likely to be shading the truth, Henry says. “We’ve found in black-white races that if there’s a high number of undecided voters, usually a good part of that number is people who’ve made up their minds, but won’t tell the pollster,” he explains. “And invariably, a majority of those votes — 6 out of 10, 7 out of 10 — go to the white candidate.”

On the other hand, he tends to agree with former Gov. Wilder, who has said he expects to see what he calls a “reverse Bradley effect” in his home state of Virginia. There are plenty of unhappy Republicans, Wilder suggested, who won’t admit that they plan to pull the lever for Obama.

“I think that there will be an anti-Bradley effect, but I think it will be smaller than the Bradley effect,” Henry says. “I think there are people like the Colin Powells or the Chris Buckleys” — high-profile Republicans who have thrown their support to Obama — “but they’re not as brave. They don’t want to be ostracized by their church, or their country club, or whatever. They’re not going to walk into their country club with a big Obama button on.”

Still, he thinks traditional GOP voters looking for change are apt to be outnumbered by blue-collar Democrats who are looking for reasons not to vote for an African American — pretexts like “Obama’s an elitist, or he’s not experienced, or he’s Muslim.”

Transcending race

In the end, two factors may overwhelm the electoral impacts of racism, Henry believes. One is that Obama, like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, is seen by many as “transcending race.” Henry, who published a 1999 biography of the black scholar/statesman Ralph Bunche, tells the story of how the Nobel Peace Prize winner once engaged in “this long discussion” with a woman about race, after which “she said to him, ‘Well, after all, you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.’ He said, ‘I beg your pardon, my daughter did marry one.’ And she’s, ‘Oh, you know, but you’re different.’”

Whites may see Obama in a similar way, suggests Henry. “So you can hold these stereotypes and at the same time vote for him because he’s ‘not black,’ or he’s transcended race, or he’s in a special category.”

The other factor, he says, is the perilous state of the nation, which could induce reluctant white voters to look past wedge issues in hopes of getting America back on track.

“Critical race theory argues that we’ve only had racial advancement at three crisis points in our history,” says Henry — the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, and their aftermaths.

“I think we’re in one of these periods with Obama,” he continues. “But what has it taken to get here? It’s taken two wars and a financial meltdown. Or as Chris Rock said, jokingly, George Bush has made it almost impossible for a white man to be considered for president of the United States. And one has to seriously ask, if it weren’t for us being in the hole we’re in, would a woman or a black be considered for this position?

“But people are willing to sort of put that aside in a pinch if they really think, ‘Well, this guy can get us out of this mess, I’m gonna give him a shot.’ ”

There’s also something to be said for the stigma that lies at the core of the Bradley effect, a shame that grew out of the civil-rights era. “The norm is now racial equality,” Henry says. “To come out and say you’re not voting for somebody because they’re black — or because they’re a woman — is simply not acceptable in most public settings today. You can get away with it in some places, or on Rush Limbaugh’s or Michael Savage’s radio programs, but generally it’s not acceptable. And therefore people are not willing to say it. And from that standpoint it’s an improvement over the pre-civil-rights period.”

As for whether America is actually ready to elect a black man as president, Henry’s “not taking anything for granted.” But he’s already anticipating the challenges and opportunities of an Obama administration.

“It’s going to open up avenues and doors that we can’t imagine, it’s going to present problems that we can’t imagine,” he says. “But on the whole, it’s one of those periods of a leap forward, where if his presidency goes well — and I shudder to think of the burdens on him…”

“I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime,” Henry admits. “And if I had, I would have predicted it would be somebody like a Colin Powell or a Condoleezza Rice, or a Tom Bradley — that is, somebody who’s to the right of center, with defense or police credentials, where people could be very comfortable that this is a moderate-to-conservative, Ed Brooke kind of person” — a reference to the onetime Republican U.S. senator, himself a pre-Bradley Bradley-effect victim — “and not somebody whose policy positions are as close to those of the black community as Barack Obama’s.”

An Obama victory, declares Henry, could be “the beginning of true multi-racial democracy in the United States.” And while he expects Obama’s lead in the polls to shrink, he’s got some ideas for a speech — a State of the Union address, possibly — he’d like the next president to give. And it’s pretty clear who he envisions reading from the teleprompter.

The speech, he explains, would go beyond race to talk about “ending divisions” across America. It would “turn Palin’s point, when she says ‘he sees the world differently than we do,’ on its head. You have to say, ‘Yeah, I do, and I’m still American, and isn’t that the great thing, that we can see things differently but get together on some key issues? I think it has to be that kind of speech. We’re all in the same country and we have to pull together.”

The Bradley effect, of course, could rear its head on election day, rendering the speech a pipedream. Or, perhaps, America will finally turn the page.