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Revisiting the Bradley Effect

Race has been one of the enduring subtexts of this long presidential campaign. After being at the front and center of our dialogue during the primaries, it has since taken a more peripheral role. People aren't talking about it as much, but it's still there. And nobody knows how that will impact the election.

The Chicago Sun Times provides the latest examination of the impact that racism among White Democrats may have on the election this fall:

"Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama's support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice."
It's an interesting article that raises legitimate questions, but it is easy for pundits and the media to be distracted by the wrong questions and conclusions, as I argued in The Plight of Black Republicans three months ago:
If you are Black and you support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist.)

If you are White and you don't support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist.)

If you are White and you support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist who's trying to prove that you aren't.)

If you are Black and you don't support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're trying to prove that race doesn't matter by voting against him.)

So it would seem that nobody can support or oppose Obama at all without their motives being questioned.
Let's examine the first two points in greater detail.

1. If you are Black and you support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist.)

Ever since the civil rights era, there has been a realignment of the political parties and electoral loyalties. The Democratic Party was the party that resisted Reconstruction and desegregation. However, the legacies of JFK, RFK, and LBJ, combined with advent of Richard Nixon and his "Southern strategy," pushed Blacks into the Democratic Party, which they have overwhelmingly supported for 30-40 years. Bill Clinton was praised as "the first Black president." Al Gore won 90% of the Black vote in 2000. Thus, Blacks' 90+% support of Obama is nothing new. If Obama were a Republican, he almost certainly would not be enjoying such high support.

Also, Blacks were originally some of Obama's harshest critics this campaign season, as the "is Obama Black enough?" stories suggested. These voters were firmly in Hillary Clinton's camp at the start of the primaries, but she squandered her goodwill in the South Carolina contest. Now they are on the cusp of seeing "one of their own" make it to the White House and they are understandably excited. To expect these voters to vote for John McCain in any large numbers is foolish. These voters may indeed be voting solely on race, but that is no different from women voting for Sarah Palin because she is a "hockey mom." (Emphasis on mom.)

An argument can be made that voting solely for demographic reasons has merit in that sometimes the person who can best understand a certain group of people is a member of the group itself. What does John McCain know about being demeaned as a result of affirmative action? What does Joe Biden know about being locked out of the "good ol' boys" network? To be fair, they may have gained some insights through their advisers, experiences on the campaign trail, or secondhand experiences with their friends and colleagues. But one could also say that one could never truly know how another person feels unless that person has actually walked in that person's shoes and lived that person's life.

2. If you are White and you don't support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist.)

This statement might be true for some people, but the majority certainly don't subscribe to this thinking. There are legitimate policy differences between McCain and Obama, and these differences constitute the rationale for voting for McCain instead of Obama for most voters. Having said that, it must be stated that Whites are considerably more likely to vote Republican than any other racial group. Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom are White, lost the White vote to George Bush. Expecting Obama to win the White vote is just as foolish as expecting Blacks to vote in higher numbers for McCain.

When people talk about a hidden racist vote against Obama, they mistakenly attribute it to White voters in general. However, it should be attributed to a certain subset of Whites. Political scientists would be well advised to focus on White voters who voted for Al Gore and John Kerry in the last two elections, vote for Democrats down the ballot in this election, and vote for McCain at the top of the ballot. If these voters aren't merely seeking divided government, this is where the Bradley effect could be observed. The reservations these voters have about Obama may be because of his inexperience. But they could also be because of his race. That is a real issue that is difficult to accurately gauge.

A good case study for assessing the Bradley effect would be the 2006 Senate race between Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee. Ford lost the race, but he did win 48% of the vote, which was actually slightly better than what the polls right before the election suggested. Tennessee is a tough state for Democrats to win in general, so the closeness of this race suggests that the Bradley effect is either negligible or severely diminished. If the 2006 Senate race in Tennessee is indicative of the state of race relations in the 21st century, that would bode well for Obama in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, all of which he must hold if he wants to win the election.

It is difficult to discern who votes on ideological grounds and who votes on racial grounds when it comes to the privacy of the voting booth. Both major parties have both types of voters in their coalitions, and both major parties arguably adopt policies that perpetuate racial divisions.

We'll learn a lot about the Bradley effect after the debates. In the event that Obama overperforms and clearly beats McCain, but still loses the election, this nation will have to do some serious soul-searching. Likewise, if McCain overperforms and clearly beats Obama and wins the election, this nation will have to do some serious soul-searching before scapegoating and playing the race card.

Perhaps the fact that this is even still an issue at all suggests that there is a lot more work to do. But then again, that fact that people are discussing it openly is also a sign that we have come a long way.

7 comment(s):

DB said...

It will be interesting to see how close the race is at the end of election night compared to the most recent of polls. I can imagine some people who advocate one way or another openly but change their minds upon entering the voting booth, though it is hard to gauge why.

Khaki Elephant said...

Fantastic post, Anthony!

So it would seem that nobody can support or oppose Obama at all without their motives being questioned.

He cannot be "uncle Tom'd" as Palin has been "uncle woman'd" so nobody can claim he is either a traitor or transcendent to his visible race, and in today's environment that leaves every voter's motives up to questioning. Great read, my friend.

Chris McNeal said...

I would like to see more Republicans reach out to black voters. Obviously, a big problem is that they oppose many of the affirmative action policies which Democrats support overwhelmingly. I don't think that means they are racists. It just means they don't agree with the policy. I would at least like to see Republicans try to make that case to black voters and explain why they believe those policies are actually harmful.
The problem is that our electoral system doesn't lend itself well to that because of our winner take all system. Most elections for state and national offices are simply won by getting "your people" out to the polls. If you're in a district that is filled with white Republicans, all you have to do is get your white Republicans out to the polls. If we had proportionality elections like in Great Britain, candidates would be forced to reach into other voting blocs.
Fantastic writing Mr. Palmer. I love coming to your site.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

well the only definition of racist i suport of that of kwame nkrumah in AFRICA MUST UNITE

S.W. Anderson said...

I think African Americans overwhelmingly looked to the Democratic Party as their favored party long before Nixon undertook the southern strategy. I think their identifying with Democrats at least goes back to the time when Truman ordered integration of the military.

Even before that Eleanor Roosevelt and other liberal Democrats were speaking and working for more fairness for people of color.

There were plenty of reasons why Strom Thurmond bolted the party, all of them rooted in the growing Democratic commitment to political and economic fairness, and to the social fairness then referred to as brotherhood.

S.W. Anderson said...

Being white and of a certain age, I recognize the likelihood large numbers of African Americans will vote for Obama because he's black, first and foremost, and because they want to be able to identify with a fellow black who made it to the top of the Democratic Party and well might make it to the top of U.S. government and politics.

What's more, I expect many African Americans want their kids to be able to identify with an exceptionally bright, articulate and decent black man who makes it to the White House.

I don't support Obama because he's black. He has to be good on issues I consider important, as he seems to mostly be. But that being the case, I hope in part he will succeed, both as a candidate and as a president, because I want African Americans, especially the kids, to have him to identify with and take pride in.

If elected, Obama won't please evreyone. No one could do that. But if he does a good job for Americans of all races and colors, he will do the best that can be done to change the minds, if only a bit, of those who still harbor racist feelings but are not all-out, hate-filled bigots. That would be a significant achievement in and of itself.

Mark in Austin said...

538 had a great critical analysis of this from a statistician's view.

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