Ed. Note: This piece by guest blogger Phil Tajitsu Nash was published in AsianWeek on October 16, 2008.
In 1982, popular Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, was widely viewed as having a good chance to become the next governor of California. He led his white Republican opponent, George Deukmejian, in opinion polls before the election and in some exit polls on election day. Early editions of the San Francisco Chronicle contained headlines proclaiming “Bradley Win Projected.”
When Bradley narrowly lost the race, a variety of theories tried to explain the loss, including the smaller than expected percentage of whites who voted for Bradley. The so-called “Bradley Effect” has come to mean that when a minority candidate loses or wins an election by a smaller percentage than expected, one factor may be that white voters lie to pollsters about their support for minority candidates out of fear of being perceived as racist.
Convincing cases have been made that the “Bradley Effect” is real and that it is bogus. A recent New York Times article concluded race definitely has an effect on polling and elections, but that effect is a lot more complicated than many commentators would have you believe.
Opinion polls conducted in recent days show Barack Obama leading John McCain by significant amounts, sometimes in double digits. No doubt the faltering economy, the abysmal track record of George W. Bush and missteps made by the McCain campaign have contributed to this.
And support by young people, poor voters, and others who traditionally are undercounted could make Obama’s margin of victory even larger.
Twenty-six years after Bradley’s loss, my guess is the rise of a new generation of non-white office-holders has reduced whatever “Bradley Effect” may have existed in 1982. In fact, about 30 percent of the nation’s 622 black state legislators represented predominantly white districts in 2007, up from about 16 percent in 2001.
Aside from African American leaders, white Americans in Louisiana today have an Indian American governor, Bobby Jindal. Washington state voters elected Gary Locke, a Chinese American, as their governor in 1996. New York state’s governor, David Patterson, is African American, as is Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. A Hispanic, Bill Richardson, is the governor of New Mexico.
There are complicating factors in any election as to why one person wins and another loses. Race is sometimes a factor, as it will be for some Asian Pacific Americans who remain uncomfortable with the thought of an African American president. But the vast majority of APAs, and of all Americans, have now had the chance to see leaders who do not look like them – whether by race, gender, or some other characteristic.
The days of monolithic rule by advantaged white men has passed, and many – if not most – of us have been represented during the last 26 years by mayors, commissioners, governors, or other officials who are not white.
I remain concerned, however, that what might be attributed to a “Bradley Effect” after the Nov. 4th election will actually prove voter suppression efforts by Republican operatives.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo points out how Republican operatives create a big stink every two years about the dangers of people voting twice or registering as Mickey Mouse, while the real danger to democracy comes from misallocation of voting machines on election day, centralized vote tabulators that are open to tampering, abuse of prosecutorial discretion to trump up election fraud charges and other measures certain to suppress participation by minority, poor and Democratic voters.
Despite only 120 prosecutable offenses involving voter fraud in a nation where over 100 million people vote, the Republican Party is going on the offensive to knock potential voters (especially minorities and Democrats) off the polls before the election.
A recent report found that “tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law,” according to a review of state records and Social Security data by The New York Times.
We all have come a long way since Brown v. Board of Education knocked down the wall of segregation in this country in 1954.
I hope this election knocks down the final remaining barrier to full participation for minorities in this society, and finally lays to rest the idea that any American would cast a vote against a candidate, or deny someone else the right to vote, based on the color of their skin.
- Phil Nash