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Debunking the "Bradley Effect"

Robert Novak writes this morning of "the Bradley Effect", i.e., the phenomenon whereby black candidates underperform their polls on election day. This is purported to explain why Obama is losing to Hillary in most primary states but winning the caucus states.

The Bradley Effect refers to Tom Bradley, the Los Angeles mayor who lost the 1982 governor’s race in California after leading in the polls by a large margin. This is supposed to indicate America’s latent racism, of course. But not so fast. That conclusion is not so easily reached if you take a closer look at that election. First, Bradley was a boring, cautious candidate (not that George Deukmejian, who beat him, was Mister Excitement--but he was the attorney general, not a slouch statewide job). I recall talking to someone in the Duke’s camp the Saturday before the election, and he told me their tracking polls showed them pulling ahead, and he predicted they would win narrowly, which they did. So the general polls, always several days old, were out of date on election day. (This did not stop Mervin Field, the head of the Field poll, from saying on TV as late as 10 pm election night that Bradley was going to pull it out.)

Second, Bradley actually did win among the votes cast on election day; the Duke’s margin of victory came from absentee ballots, which Republicans actively procured ahead of time that year, in of the most advanced absentee drills to date at that time. Third, the Duke had huge turnout from the state’s not insubstantial Armenian community, which was probably undersampled in the general polls. Finally, there was a stupid, lefty gun control initiative on the ballot that year that juiced turnout from gun owners. Many Democrats at the time attributed their loss to the tactical error of having such a red meat initiative on the ballot. Finally, don’t forget that the 1982 election was coming after eight years of Jerry Brown in Sacramento, and the desire to switch parties was probably a small factor with some voters.

This does not mean that there is no Bradley Effect at all; people point to Doug Wilder in Virginia, who underperformed his polls back in the 1980s. But that might be more understandable in Virginia, an old Confederate states. It seems less plausible in California. After all, remember that Bradley was first elected mayor of LA at a time when the black vote in LA was tiny.

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