Will Obama beat the Bradley effect?

Equating a black political candidate with anti-Americanism, or terrorist violence, is a strategy.

October 18, 2008 20:59
4 minute read.
Will Obama beat the Bradley effect?

Obama great 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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There is extensive media speculation about how the so-called Bradley effect will influence Sen. Barack Obama's chances of winning the US presidential election. We must remember that the Bradley effect, properly understood, should go beyond the relationship between pre-election polling and actual electoral outcomes. The Bradley effect involves white voters dishonestly reporting their intentions to pollsters as regards voting for a black political candidate. Its name derives from the late Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley's 1982 campaign to become the first African-American governor since the days of Reconstruction. Pre-election polling suggested that Bradley would roundly defeat his white opponent, George Deukmejian, California's then attorney-general. Despite Bradley's consistent lead in the polls, however, many Californians changed their intentions, resulting in his losing of the election by a mere 100,000 votes, 1.2 percent of the total 7.5 million cast. Similar concerns are being raised about Obama's current lead in the polls over Sen. John McCain. Given what happened to Bradley, the Bradley-effect, broadly defined, must surely be taken to mean more than a mere reluctance by white voters to report their electoral intentions accurately. Bradley endured a number of racially-inspired campaign attacks, highlighting his ethnic-racial identity, similar to those used against Obama. That is, Bradley, similarly to other black political candidates, by virtue of his or her ethnic (racial) identification, was sometimes accused of being unpatriotic, disruptive or even an enemy of the state. Sadly, equating a black political candidate with anti-Americanism, or terrorist violence, is a tried and tested campaign strategy. In Bradley's first mayoral campaign in 1969, his political opponent, the late Sam Yorty, successfully charged that he maintained political associations with militant blacks who had instigated urban riots, as well as with former communist sympathizers. As a result, Bradley was defeated. Only in his second attempt (1973) did Bradley overcome voter distrust of blacks, soundly defeating Yorty and going on to win reelection four times as mayor of Los Angeles, through to 1993. The charge used against Bradley and some other black candidates was that they were of questionable patriotism and condoned the use of violence against whites. We should recall that, in the 1960s, law and order was the term used by some white political candidates when combating urban riots (which involved shootings, arson and looting) in low-income black neighborhoods across the US in cities such as Newark and Detroit, as well as in Watts, Los Angeles. Some of these residents were violently protesting against social ills created by century-long segregation policies. Incredibly, Obama's political opponents have now resorted to a campaign strategy remarkably similar to that used against Bradley. For example, during the primaries, they attempted to identify Obama as an Afro-centric candidate who placed his own minority group interests above those of the nation. For his part, McCain has done more than merely profile Obama as a black candidate. His tactics began innocuously enough. A McCain supporter, conservative commentator Grover Norquist (The Los Angeles Times), racially identified Obama as "John Kerry with a tan." Next, McCain moved to characterize Obama as disloyal. For example, he recently slandered Obama over a tenuous association with William Ayers, a former member of the anti-Vietnam war movement, Weather Underground. McCain surrogates also drew attention to Obama's middle name, Hussein, which can be associated with radical Arabs such as the late Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. In short, McCain portrays Obama not only as disloyal, but also as someone who condones the use of violence against Americans. Of course, McCain has his own history of difficulty with race relations - recall his awkward attempt to apologize to black voters for his political opposition to the Martin Luther King Day holiday. McCain's reference to Obama as "that one" during the second presidential debate only aggravated his already tenuous standing with black voters and other minority groups, long accustomed to labels that portray minorities in a dehumanized manner. To be fair, both white and black commentators from all sides of the political spectrum have attempted to racially profile Obama. Ralph Nader alleged (Rocky Mountain News) that Obama was "trying to talk white." There were also Hillary and Bill Clinton's efforts to stereotype Obama as another Jesse Jackson. Even some black commentators (Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Jackson) have decried Obama as not black enough, in an effort to pressure him to support African-American causes. For his part, Obama combats the Bradley effect, broadly defined, by exercising what, in fact, international treaty protections guarantee to all minorities: the human right to identify, or, alternatively, to transcend identification, with their own group. Obama's effort recalls the address by 1960 Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, a member of the Roman Catholic minority. During his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy declared that he was not "the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters - and the Church does not speak for me." On November 4, we will learn whether Obama's strategy to combat the Bradley effect, by transcending it, has been a successful one. The writer served as an appointee of the late Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. His book, On Cultural Rights: The Equality of Nations and the Minority Legal Tradition, is published by Martinus Nijhoff.

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