Is Harold Ford Jr. really doing as well as the polls suggest? Is he conceivably on his way to becoming the first black Southern senator since Reconstruction? The answer may well be yes, but Ford can hardly take that for granted. As black candidates reaching out to largely white constituencies have discovered in the past, when it comes to measuring political popularity there are lies, damned lies—and polls, on which they rest their fate at their peril.
The phenomenon was first widely noted in 1982, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost a squeaker of a race for governor after being widely projected as the winner. Douglas Wilder also came up against the "Bradley Effect" when he barely won the 1989 contest for governor of Virginia, after leading comfortably in the polls.
Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland was at Wilder's hotel as a projected easy victory turned into a nail-biter. That is a night "I'll never forget," says Walters, who thinks it "naive" to believe that things have changed very much. He believes that some percentage of whites—perhaps 5 percent or so, intent on being seen as less biased than they may be—will claim to support a nonwhite candidate when they actually do not....
And this would be why I suspect that Obama couldn't win a national race, and might not have been able to win a truly competitive statewide race. I suspect that in Obama's case, the Bradley effect would turn what would likely appear to be a fairly close nationwide race into what becomes almost a runaway. (Which is what the voters would be doing.) Some voters would not like him purely because he was black -- and his father was a foreigner! horrors! -- but would be uncomfortable articulating that; the social desirability bias against overt racism in this country produces impressively unreliable results on racial issues.
It is true that Illinois has now twice elected a black Senator in statewide races. It's also true that we've repeatedly elected a black secretary of state for Illinois in statewide races. But ... it's also true that, right or wrong, secretary of state for Illinois doesn't strike people as all that important a position. And it's also true that both black Senators were elected against candidates whose campaigns collapsed late under the weight of personal scandal. And we don't know if Moseley Braun could have been re-elected if she'd shown the judgement that god gave a gnat, because her own candidacy also collapsed due to personal scandal; she didn't even survive the primary.
This paragraph, however, regarding our local contest is worth notice, in not a good way:
...In 1983, when Harold Washington became Chicago's first black mayor, "It's our turn" resonated as a slogan throughout Chicago's black communities. Whites engaged in equally divisive rhetoric. That kind of polarization is far less evident now, says Jackson, who is weighing running for mayor of Chicago and favors "It's time for change" as his own mayoral-campaign motto....
Not that it isn't time for change -- Daley's entrenched administration seems to be spawning an impressive amount of corruption of late. Mind, I don't doubt that there were corrupt politicians in his administration before this year; they just weren't quite so collectively incompetent at hiding their corruption. However, to believe that this city is less polarized now than it was in 1983 is either outrageously hopeful or outrageously uninformed. To be sure, Jesse Jr is a very different sort of candidate than Harold Washington was. If Jackson tried to use the same sort of overtly racial politics that got Washington elected, he'd lose the votes of anyone but blacks, and his father would likely publicly disown him. (It's also worth noting that the savagely divisive Washington campaign produced four years of open warfare within the city council, during which time nothing of note got done.)
It's really hard to tell how pronounced the Bradley Effect would be at this time. On the one hand, people are continually revolted at the overtly and covertly racist campaigns that the GOP insists on utilizing. On the other hand ... people keep voting for the GOP, don't they?Posted by iain at October 25, 2006 11:10 AM