WITH only two weeks to go before the election, talk has turned to the Bradley effect. The phenomenon is named for Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor of Los Angeles, who lost the 1982 California governor’s race even though exit polls predicted he’d defeat his Republican opponent, George Deukmejian. Some white people, the theory goes, tell pollsters they will vote for black candidates and then, once in the voting booth, don’t.
While it’s no surprise that this has become a topic of discussion as John McCain and Barack Obama near the finish line, as someone who worked for Bradley’s campaign, I think it’s worth pointing out that the effect has been widely misunderstood.
On election night in 1982, with 3,000 supporters celebrating prematurely at a downtown hotel, I was upstairs reviewing early results that suggested Bradley would probably lose.
But he wasn’t losing because of race. He was losing because an unpopular gun control initiative and an aggressive Republican absentee ballot program generated hundreds of thousands of Republican votes no pollster anticipated, giving Mr. Deukmejian a narrow victory.
This is not to say that race wasn’t an issue; it was in 1982 and it has been since. But to those who keep citing the Bradley effect — not so fast. It’s more complicated than you think.
As we’re on the subject, we should free Tom Bradley’s name from an association he would have abhorred. After all, he practiced the sort of politics whose goal was to bring people together, not to play up their differences. He was the opposite of the “Us vs. Them” politics so often cited as demonstrating the Bradley effect.
I worked for Bradley in his 1973 mayoral campaign against Sam Yorty, the incumbent. Bradley was holding his own. But a key group, Jewish voters, was up for grabs. One Sunday, I drove Bradley to a banquet with a Jewish group. Walking in, I noticed many men wearing yarmulkes. I had one in my jacket and gave it to Bradley. He put it in his pocket.
When the event began, Yorty was called to the podium and given a yarmulke, which he put on. Then Bradley was called up. When offered a yarmulke, he said, “I have my own,” reached into his pocket, took it out and put it on. The response? Laughter, applause, smiles. It sent a message not of pandering — “I am one of you” — but rather, “We are all in this together.”
Bradley won the day and then the election. Over 20 years as mayor, he had the same effect on many diverse audiences. To me, that’s the real Bradley effect.