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Political experts debate 'Bradley Effect'

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Pollsters and political scientists debate it. Politicians and their consultants worry about it or count on it. It's called the Bradley Effect and it happens when African American political candidates get fewer votes than they expected because voters lied to pollsters about their willingness to support a black candidate. Some think it'll come into play in November, when Barack Obama faces John McCain. KPCC's Frank Stoltze tells the story of how the Bradley Effect got its name here in California.

Frank Stoltze: November 2nd, 1982 was supposed to be historic. Polls showed Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley poised to become the nation's first black governor. He held a comfortable lead in the race over then-State Attorney General George Duekmejian. Political consultant Kerman Maddox volunteered for Bradley and joined an election night "victory" party at the Biltmore Hotel.

Kerman Maddox: People were dancing, people were yelling and screaming. I was looking at the TV screen, and the TV screen had George Duekmejian ahead of Bradley. I was scratching my head. I was puzzled. It wasn't really until around midnight that the mood changed and people started to think, wait a minute, something's going on.

Stoltze: Tom Bradley knew all about race and politics.

Tom Bradley: I, Thomas Bradley.
Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren: Do solemnly swear.
Bradley: Do solemnly swear.

Stoltze: A decade earlier, he had beaten incumbent L.A. mayor Sam Yorty, who had tried to stir racial fears to defeat Bradley.

Bradley: Your rejection of the appeals to racial prejudice will serve as an historic monument to the political process in this country.

Stoltze: Some voters continued to harbor racial prejudice. But the civil rights movement made it increasingly less acceptable to talk about that. Reviewing Bradley's loss in the gubernatorial race 26 years ago, most pollsters now believe that bigoted voters unwilling to support the African-American mayor lied in public opinion surveys, or refused to participate.

Scott Keeter: My personal encounter with this was when I was polling in Virginia in the gubernatorial election of 1989.

Stoltze: The Pew Research Center's Scott Keeter says polls showed Doug Wilder leading that contest by ten percentage points going into the election. He barely squeaked out a win.

Keeter: So, we have a collection of surveys in very high-profile elections that suggested that polling when you have a black candidate and a white candidate might not be very accurate, and the errors are all in the same direction.

Stoltze: But Keeter says a survey of campaigns involving black and white candidates two years ago found no evidence of the Bradley effect. African-American candidates did as well or better than the polls predicted.

Keeter: The Bradley effect may very well have disappeared.

Stoltze: Why? Keeter says voters are less bigoted than before. He also argues there's less racial stigma to saying you support John McCain over Barack Obama, for instance, so any voter may be more honest about his or her preference. Cal State Fullerton political scientist Raphe Sonenshine isn't so sure of this.

Raphe Sonenshine: I still think that you have to look very carefully at undecided voters near the end of a race when a black candidate is running for the first time, as Obama is doing this time, and see if the undecided voters are fairly typical, or if its packed solid with a lot of white Democrats who are very ambivalent on racial issues. And if that's true, they're saying they're undecided may mask that they're leaning against voting for Obama.

Stoltze: Sonenshine also says more conservative and less educated voters are less likely to participate in opinion surveys. He adds that some of them may be less likely to vote for a black candidate. Deciphering why voters make the decisions they do is always difficult.

Political writer and KPCC commentator Marc Haefele doesn't doubt that some voters factor race into their choices. But he maintains that Tom Bradley lost the '82 governors race not because of any Bradley Effect, but because of a late surge of voters opposed to a gun control measure on the ballot.

Marc Haefele: What you had was an arrival at the polls of people who were not expected to vote, voted on another issue, and were inherently, because of their conservative backgrounds, anti-Bradley.

Stoltze: Still, political consultants like Kerman Maddox remain cautious when it comes to race.

Maddox: I mean if I have an African-American candidate who's running in a district that has a significant number of older white voters, I often don't show the photo as much as I normally would.

Frank Luntz: How many of you have been in a presentation that I've given? Raise your hands if you've been in one. There is a Bradley factor.

Stoltze: Some Republicans are counting on the Bradley effect in this presidential election. At the party's nominating convention in St. Paul earlier this month, Republican pollster Frank Luntz told the faithful that they could count on John McCain getting more support than the polls might show.

Luntz: You all know about Tom Bradley and what happened in the election. People will not necessarily tell the truth to pollsters in this election cycle. So if the numbers are tough, don't let it get you down. You've just got to work even harder.

Stoltze: Earlier this year, a Gallup poll asked likely voters whether Obama's race made them more or less likely to support him, or made no difference in the way they'd vote. Almost 90 percent said it would have no effect. What worries Obama supporters, and encourages Republican pollster Luntz, is that some percentage of those voters were in swing states, and were lying.