Summer Love, Fall Freak-Out: The Bradley Effect and Why Obama Will Lose Without Hillary

Obama's been to Hawaii. We're moving through August's hot days, cool nights. Everything feels in abeyance: Obama's got the same lead--4 points--he's kept all summer. This month, however, the polls reversed. McCain led--suddenly--by two points, and among unaffiliated voters, by fifteen. The Rasmussen Report and Zogby/ATV poll found that Obama's lost major ground with women, independents, Democrats, even young voters. Polls are just that; they could change. But we might ask: why the dip? If it reflects the fact that Obama acted "uppity" and met state heads in Europe, or that McCain ran ads comparing Obama to amateur porn star Paris Hilton (implying black people are good at sex and celebrity, and not-so-good at intellectual endeavors), then perhaps race is in play after all. If so, we might reconsider the Bradley Effect. Because if it hits Obama, then unless he does the one thing that would beat it, he will lose in November, and not by a little, but by a lot.

The Bradley Effect's named for the long-time African-American Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, who ran for Governor of California in 1982. Election-eve, Bradley was so far ahead of his white Republican opponent that newspapers printed headlines saying "Bradley Wins!" But he lost by 50,000 votes. Why? White voters who'd claimed they'd support him changed their minds--in the voting booth.

In 1989, Douglas Wilder, the Democratic black Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia, ran for Governor, and stayed nine points ahead of white Republican Marshall Coleman all through the race. Yet on election-day, Wilder won by just half a point.

Also in 1989, African-American Democrat David Dinkins kept an eighteen-point lead over his rival for mayor of New York, white Republican Rudy Giuliani; until final tally. Dinkins squeaked by with two points.

In 1990, African-American Democrat Harvey Gantt ran against white Republican Jesse Helms for a North Carolina Senate seat. Throughout the contest, Gantt (like Obama) was predicted to win by 4-6 points. He lost to Helms by six.

Why the reversals? Some white voters lie about whom they support, so as not to seem racist. But most probably intend to vote for the black candidate, and simply, on the day of election, freak out. They feel suddenly nervous about the black candidate's "competence," or "experience," and pick the "known quantity,"--the white guy.

Summer-long, white liberals proclaimed we're "beyond race." In "The Myth of a Toss Up Election," analysts Alan Abramowitz, Thomas Mann, and Larry Sabato used voting patterns from presidential elections-past to conclude that--based on a 6-point lead--Obama would tromp McCain. By using (all-white) elections as their evidence, these upbeat boy-wonders assume race matters not at all. In June, Frank Rich of the New York Times reprimanded "doubters," noting that Obama had held on to "Hillary's" constituencies: blue-collar workers, Catholics, and Hispanics. (Obama's lead with those groups has since diminished.) Rich pointed out that Obama's June lead of six points was higher than Bush's over Kerry's in 2004, and concluded Obama would win in November. Rich (who's white) acts as if ignoring race were the only gentlemanly option: his suggestion that Obama will win because his June lead this year beats Bush's in 2004 implies--with country-club-style largess--the two men are comparably electable. But George Bush was a white, dynastic, Republican whose father was President; Obama's a black newbie Democrat. And Black candidates going for historically-white top governing positions always score nine to sixteen points lower than pre-election polls say they will.

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What about the argument that we're not in 1989 anymore? It's valid. We now have black Senators, Congressmen--we're comfortable with a black man being one among a powerful group. But that comfort may evaporate when we contemplate a black man in charge. The newer the type of candidate to the position, the harder the Bradley Effect strikes. In 1982, America had never, in 200 years, had a black governor. It was precisely because of this that hundreds of thousands of Bradley's white supporters freaked out and switched allegiance on election-day. In 1989, we'd still never had a black governor, and Wilder's lead dropped from 9 points to just half a point--within 24 hours. In 1989, New York had never had a black mayor; Dinkins lost 16 points on election-day. In 1990, when the vote came down for Gantt versus Helms, America had only ever elected one African-American senator, and that guy was a conservative republican. Gantt lost.

The primary, which Obama won, is temporary and not when the effect would occur. And in the primaries, Obama ran against a woman--one seen as obnoxious. John McCain may be temperamental, erratic, and suffering from early-onset dementia, but he's nonetheless viewed as moderate. He's also charming and familiar--by his pink skin, white hair, and gruff-yet-suave demeanor alone, a 'classic' leader. 75% of white voters see McCain as "a safe choice" for President.

In fact, Obama's already experienced the Bradley Effect. He was expected to win New Hampshire--a bellwether state--by 13 points. He lost by 3. Several polls had him winning liberal California by 13 points; he lost it by 10. Obama suffered upsets in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and more.

Others who say the Effect won't occur critique polls. The discrepancy, they argue, appears not because whites switch loyalty, but because black-voter turnout is low, whites support white candidates in higher-than-expected numbers, and racists avoid answering polls. Likely true. But the result remains: every time a black male democrat tries to win a spot never held by an African-American, the candidate's numbers do a nosedive on election-day.

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The effect's tendrils are present now. In a June ABC News poll, 4 in 10 whites said they "would not feel completely comfortable" with a black president. 3 in 10 admitted to racial prejudice; more may feel it. 57% of whites said they don't think "Obama has sufficient experience to be president." Over half call him "a risky choice for the White House." Since 77% of voters of are white, these numbers matter.

What can be done?

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Nothing's analogous to "president." But "governor's" closest. The Obama campaign might ask: how did Douglas Wilder and Deval Patrick manage to become the first and second-ever African-American governors in U.S. history?

They had two advantages Obama can't replicate: in Wilder's case, a military background and conservative leaning; in Patrick's, a rags-to-riches story that gave his audience a clear, pleasing narrative. Obama grew up middle-class and is a mixed-race, hard-to-place, cosmopolitan elite. So he really needs the key thing Wilder and Patrick both had--an active partnership with a highly familiar white sponsor.

Wilder was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Virginia in 1986 by Gerald L Baliles, the then-Governor. Baliles ushered unprecedented prosperity into Virginia. Then he campaigned hard for Wilder. Wilder's partnership with Baliles, who Virginia's voters knew well, was undoubtedly key to the election of America's first black governor. Deval Patrick also had a prominent white sponsor, who stumped for him when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, and who hired Patrick as his lawyer (twice), and appointed Patrick to be the Assistant Attorney General to the Civil Rights Division of the national government--and that man was Bill Clinton. Patrick became the 2nd African American Governor in history in 2006.

To do as Wilder and Patrick did, Obama must partner with a figure who conveys tradition, competence, familiarity. Even if they're disliked by many--and by Obama--the Clintons convey that. More than her 18 million votes, Obama needs Clinton's household name. The Clintons ushered prosperity into America. One need not like them--or Hillary--to feel she's authoritative and familiar. Her presence on the ticket--like a well-known name-brand on an unknown product--would reassure swing voters.

An August Fox/Opinion poll found that Clinton's name--(and that of no other mate)--gives Obama an 8-point boost. Obama needs the boost.

Other considerations:

1. If Obama runs with a white man, he is by contrast a black one. If he runs with a woman, he is by contrast a man.

We perceive race visually. It's counterintuitive, but refuge in the traditional authority--the white male--may highlight what Obama's not.

2. It will offend middle-America to see a black man positioned prominently above a white one.

The nominee and running-mate stand adjacent during speeches, rallies, and in commercials. Low-income Whites may recoil when they see a black man positioned over a white one.

3. Most successful black candidates have undergone a "hazing"--military service, an impoverished upbringing, etc.--which makes them acceptable to whites. Tolerating Hillary could be that hazing.

Those who despise Clinton may find new sympathy for Obama if they watch him having to put up with her. And by playing off each other, the two could add much-needed levity to the campaign. They could also make themselves more likable.

"Don't worry, Barack," Hillary could say, "the restaurant we're eating at tonight has arugala."

He'd respond, "Oh, by the way, Hill? I'm the nominee."

"Yeah, well," she'd say, "not everyone's as tall and skinny as you."

4. Most low-income whites will not vote for a black man, but they may vote for an absurdist joke.

Clinton's being a woman may cancel out Obama's being black and render the ticket just crazy enough to be sane. "It's crazy--" the blue-collar worker might say, "it's lunacy, why the hell not? Don't I want change?"

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Obama may loathe Hillary. But he says he wants to be president. No one knows who Tim Kaine is. No one will be reassured by his presence. And with him beside Obama, Obama's still what he is now: a diffident, perplexing, cosmopolitan, slightly arrogant black man. With Hillary beside him, Obama's the new guy on the team, and a hot ticket.