Obama's Bradley Effect?

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, February 11, 2008

Which Democrat won Super Tuesday? Thanks to the Democratic Party's proportional representation, it is not easy to say a week later. Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama ran to a virtual dead heat for the delegates at stake in 22 states that were clearly stacked in Obama's favor. But the way Obama lost California raises the specter of the dreaded "Bradley effect."

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American Democrat, unexpectedly lost his 1982 campaign for governor. His defeat came as voters told pollsters that they preferred the black candidate and then voted the other way. In California's primary last Tuesday, Obama lost by a landslide 10 percentage points despite one late survey showing him ahead by 13 points and two others giving him a one-point lead.

Was this presumed 20-point reversal caused by the Bradley effect, which has worried Democratic leaders since Obama became an obstacle to Clinton's majestic procession to the Oval Office? It is much too early for that conclusion, but the subject is on the minds and is coming up in private comments of Democratic politicians pondering the stalemate for the party's presidential nomination.

Other than an alarming racial gap separating supporters of the two candidates, Obama escaped from Super Tuesday without obvious damage. Clinton's capture of California, New York and New Jersey gave her the big states contested that day, except for Obama's home state of Illinois. Under Republican winner-take-all rules, her wins would have put her on the way to the nomination. Instead, Obama finished with a 13-delegate edge out of the 1,681 delegates that were on the line.

That is bad news for Clinton, who now faces a temporary drought. The next three weeks belong to Obama, with nearly all the states likely to be decided in his favor, culminating in Wisconsin on Feb. 19. Clinton's strategists have spread the word not to worry because of Texas and Ohio, two big states presumably favorable to Clinton, on March 4. With its large Hispanic vote, Texas looks good for Clinton, but Ohio is less certain.

But proportional representation rears its head. Obama strategists privately concede probable defeat in those two big states but forecast losing their delegate competition by only 174 to 160, a pitifully small margin of 14. The Obama team's projection of the delegate count after all the primaries have been held shows Obama with 1,647 and Clinton with 1,580 -- both short of the 2,025 needed for nomination. (This confidential information was accidentally e-mailed to Bloomberg News, which published it.) The issue could be settled by unelected, unpledged superdelegates or by a credentials fight over Florida and Michigan, which were stripped of their delegates for scheduling their primaries too early.

The prospect of going into a convention with the nominee unknown for the first time since 1952 upsets Democratic insiders not merely because of the uncertainty. Splitting the party along ethnic and racial lines is troubling -- especially in California, where massive Latino support for Clinton canceled out Obama's base among blacks.

However, disbelief that their voters harbor racial prejudices leads Democrats to reject speculation that those voters lied to pollsters in claiming to support Obama. The Zogby poll that showed a big Obama lead in California, and the Suffolk and Rasmussen surveys giving him a narrow edge, it is argued, were just plain wrong. It is also claimed that the state's final tally was skewed by an unexpectedly low African American turnout.

But briefings on exit polls early Tuesday evening, the product of nonpartisan technicians, cautioned listeners not to be carried away by favorable Obama numbers around the country because his actual performance often is overstated by exit polls. (Indeed, contrary to early exit poll signals of an Obama upset in New Jersey, Clinton carried the state comfortably.) No explanation was given for this aberration, but many listeners presumed it was the Bradley effect.

As much as the Democratic stalemate delights the news media, worried party leaders still hope that Clinton or Obama will break away in the popular vote before the party convenes in Denver late in August, even if neither achieves a majority of delegates.

Howard Dean, who was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee after the 2004 elections in a rare manifestation of internal party democracy, let it be known that he would be happy to mediate between the two candidates and pick a nominee in March or April. It was occasion for laughter in both the Clinton and Obama camps.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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