Obama and the Bradley effect

Will attempts by the McCain camp to paint Obama as some kind of sinister and dangerous figure work?

Analysts seem to feel that such smear campaigns can be effective at times. Recall the absurd situation in 2004 where John Kerry’s actual service in Vietnam was ridiculed and called into question by the supporters of Bush and Cheney, both of whom were draft dodgers. Recall also the anti-gay marriage sentiment that seemingly played an important role in that same election.

So far, the normal hot-button issues of sexual orientation and abortion and guns have not played prominent roles in the campaign. This leaves race as the emotional issue that can be exploited. And rest assured it will be, along with all kinds of attempts to impugn the character of Obama using guilt by association.

In trying to run a smear campaign, the McCain campaign is hampered by its own baggage. For every attempt to paint Obama as an elitist, we have the McCains’ dozen (?) homes, thirteen cars, and private plane, and the fact that the outfit that Cindy McCain wore at the Republican convention allegedly cost around $300,000.

If they bring up Rev. Jeremiah Wright, they have Sarah Palin’s own associations with extreme religious groups, including the weird Rev. Thomas Muthee who blessed her gubernatorial campaign and who prides himself on being able to find witches and run them out of town.

For every Tony Rezko they can dredge up from Obama’s past, McCain has his own Charles Keating and his campaign with lobbyists associated with the current financial debacle.

For every allegedly America-hating William Ayers, Palin’s flirtation with the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party can be brought up.

Furthermore, Wright and Rezko and Ayers are now old news, their fifteen minutes of fame come and gone, and it is unclear if they will have a serious effect even if they are dusted off and polished to seem like new.

This leaves only race as a major factor to be exploited. And I am afraid it will be. Some months ago Jon Stewart interviewed Barack Obama during the primaries and asked him whether he had a secret plan to enslave white people if he became president. This got a laugh from Obama and the audience but like much of the humor in The Daily Show, it works because it is based on an uneasy reality.

There are undoubtedly some white people who are afraid of giving power to black people. They cannot hide from themselves the fact that black people have been treated atrociously in this country. They fear retribution and wonder if they should take the chance of putting black people in positions of authority. Such people will never vote for ‘the black guy’.

We saw some of that sentiment expressed in the primaries, where the Appalachian regions went heavily against Obama and in favor of Hillary Clinton. This Al Jazeera report on racism in Kentucky is striking in the openness of those who think racially.

The question is how far the McCain campaign will be willing to go to grow the size of this group of people by stoking their racial animosities and fears. My sense is that they are willing to go to the very bottom of the sewer and will only desist if it seems to be not working or is backfiring on them.

When Obama’s supporters urge him to go for the jugular in response, to take the attack to McCain and Palin, they are ignoring the delicate situation that he is in because of his ethnicity. He cannot take the risk of appearing to be the ‘angry black guy’. He has to be passionate but not angry, forceful but not threatening. It is to his credit that he managed to do that so far.

Obama seems to be by nature a cool, cerebral and thoughtful person, and he has reinforced this perception by surrounding himself with solid establishment figures like Warren Buffett, Robert Rubin, and the like. Of course, this also opens him to the charge of being ‘elitist’, which has become a vague term to suggest that he is smarter than the rest of us and that this is somehow a bad thing.

Then there is the so-called ‘Bradley effect’ that says that in elections in which a black candidate runs against a white one, opinion polls tend to exaggerate the support for the black candidate because some white people are reluctant to tell posters they are voting for the white candidate for fear of being called racist.

The name comes from the 1982 race for California governor in which the black mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley was leading in the polls all the way to election day, and even in exit polls on that day, only to suffer a shocking defeat when the votes were counted. Subsequent studies revealed that white voters had voted for Bradley in smaller numbers than the polls had led one to expect. Some analysts argue that Obama needs a huge lead in the polls to compensate for the inevitable swing away from him on polling day.

Other analysts argue, based on subsequent congressional and gubernatorial elections, that the Bradley effect has largely disappeared over time. Note that they are not saying that race-based voting has disappeared. There are definitely people who will not vote for ‘the black guy’ because he is black. What these analysts are saying is that there is no evidence from recent elections that people are hiding their voting preferences from pollsters because of fears of being called racist, and so there is no significant, hidden, systematic racial bias in poll responses.

But there has been no presidential election where the Bradley effect has been put to the test. This election may well be the most heavily polled in history. Right now, Obama leads in the national polls by an average of about 6.0 points which, if it holds up, should be enough of a cushion for him, even if there is a residual Bradley effect at play. The results on election day will reveal to what extent the Bradley effect is still a factor.

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