Don't Blame the Bradley Effect

By Ken Khachigian
Sunday, November 2, 2008

They call it "the Bradley effect."

Pundits and politicians speak of it in ominous tones. It surfaced in New Hampshire in January, when Barack Obama's eight-point lead on the eve of that state's primary dissolved into a shocking come-from-behind victory for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Could it have been the Bradley effect? Chris Matthews of "Hardball" and a host of other talking heads thought so.

As Obama continues to hold a lead in the presidential polls against John McCain, the specter of the Bradley effect still haunts the campaign. It's a reference to the 1982 California governor's race, which Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, lost to state Attorney General George Deukmejian even though a popular election-eve poll showed Bradley ahead by a solid seven points. If Obama should lose on Nov. 4, there are those who'll maintain it was the Bradley effect at work. Even in faraway Kenya, the Los Angeles Times found a Nairobi choreographer to quote: "There's this thing called 'the Bradley effect' that we are all very afraid of."

Enough. This urban legend, which holds that white voters may be telling pollsters they're voting for Obama while they're secretly harboring racial reservations about him, deserves to be banished from our political conversation. As a senior strategist and day-to-day tactician in Deukmejian's 1982 campaign, I'm happy to send it packing once and for all.

There were several reasons why Bradley lost the governor's race in 1982 -- and none of them had to do with race. In the last two weeks of that campaign, Bradley was cruising through California on a languid victory tour. Conventional wisdom and early polling had made him smug and complacent. Nine days before the voting, a United Press International story observed: "Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley hasn't even been elected governor yet, but Democrats already are talking him up as a potential candidate for vice president in 1984." You could hardly blame them. Deukmejian's campaign manager had resigned three weeks before Election Day, and the political obituaries for the Republican candidate had become routine.

With our backs to the wall, the "Duke's" campaign regrouped. We got a large infusion of late cash from loyal supporters and shed our defensive posture in favor of hard-hitting messages homing in on Bradley's two principal vulnerabilities: non-Angeleno antipathy toward Los Angeles and the mayor's "soft-on-crime" liberalism.

With a little more than a week left, I drafted copy for two new television commercials. The first built on Bradley's opposition to the death penalty and California's Victims' Bill of Rights, both of which had been overwhelmingly approved by state voters. Four former chiefs of Bradley's own police department had endorsed Deukmejian, the author of California's death-penalty statute and other tough-on-crime laws.

A second commercial sharply exploited the wariness that other major California cities felt toward Los Angeles, something that surveys by our pollster, Lance Tarrance, showed to be a sure vote-getter in San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area and growing suburbs across the state. Hence the tag line: "We deserve a governor for all of California's cities, not just one." It's noteworthy that no Los Angeles mayor has been elected governor in modern California history.

But rural California wasn't in line merely to reject Los Angeles. There were two other central concerns. First, guns. Gun control advocates had put an initiative to freeze handgun sales -- Proposition 15 -- on the ballot. The NRA and the firearms industry raised millions of dollars to run the "No on 15" campaign and, through California gun stores, registered 300,000 new voters, few of whom were likely to vote for gun-control advocate Bradley.

Add that to Bradley's unpopularity among Central Valley farmers -- he'd supported the United Farm Workers' grape boycott and couldn't escape being identified with vastly unpopular Gov. Jerry Brown -- and it's easy to see why rural California flocked to the polls to voice its opposition to his candidacy.

Finally, exit polls showing Bradley winning were skewed by the unprecedented wave of absentee voters. In early September, the state GOP apparatus had set in motion a campaign to promote absentee-ballot voting -- something quite common today but more unusual a quarter-century ago. The party's push contributed to more than a half-million absentee voters, 50 percent more than in the previous gubernatorial election. As so many other observers, Democrats as well as Republicans, have noted, Bradley may well have won with actual precinct voters. But he was swamped by overwhelmingly Republican absentee ballots counted late into the night and the early morning hours.

Analysts shouldn't overlook an element of flawed polling that contributed to the Election Day surprise. Tarrance continued his tracking polls for the Deukmejian campaign right up through the eve of Election Day. His final tracking poll was taken on Sunday and Monday nights and showed Deukmejian within one point of Bradley, confirming the steady gains we'd been making since taking the offensive in the last two weeks. Mervin Field, whose firm was then the state's gold standard of polling, took his final poll over the weekend, including both Friday and Saturday, the two days when it's most difficult to reach the most valid samples of voters. Field not only may have had sampling errors, but his timing was also massively flawed and failed to capture Deukmejian's surging momentum.

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