Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)


In most polls, Barack Obama is leading John McCain. But what if that lead is being exaggerated? For years, pollsters and political analysts have argued about something called the Bradley effect. That's the theory that some people tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate but end up pulling the lever for the white candidate. Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: In 1982, Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor of Los Angeles, was running for governor of California. He was leading in the polls by double digits, but Bradley lost narrowly to the white candidate, George Deukmejian. Something similar happened in 1989 to Doug Wilder in his race for governor of Virginia. Public polls showed him up by nine to ten points. He ended up winning, but only by a few thousand votes.

Governor DOUG WILDER (Democrat, Virginia): The guy who ran under me as lieutenant governor, he was unknown, but he got double-digit numbers. And so the real question was, oh, what happened? Well, we are coming in an emerging evolutionary stage in America as it relates to race, and I think that was a good example of it. I like to remind people, however, that if the Wilder effect plays in this election, it will be good, because I won.

LIASSON: A lot has changed since then. In 2006, for example, Harold Ford, an African-American running for a Senate seat in Tennessee, received just as many votes as pre-election polls suggested he would. So did Ron Kirk, the black mayor of Dallas, when he ran for senate in Texas in 2002. During this year's Democratic primaries, University of Washington social psychologist Tony Greenwald did a study to see if there was a Bradley or Wilder effect at work in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What he found was surprising. In a few states - California, Rhode Island and New Hampshire - Obama did do worse than polls predicted. But in 12 state primaries, he actually did better. Greenwald calls it a reverse Bradley effect.

Dr. ANTHONY GREENWALD (Professor of Psychology, University of Washington): What we found is that Obama was most under-predicted - meaning he did better than the polls said - in states that have relatively high black population, and this is mostly states in the old Confederacy. And what we think is going on there is that people who get the call to participate in the poll, they're asked to say if it's Obama or Clinton. They give an answer that's easier to give in their region. And in that region, it's easier to say that you favor the white candidate than that you favor the black candidate.

LIASSON: Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, isn't convinced the phenomenon of white voters misrepresenting their views to pollsters about black candidates is completely extinct, but he's sure it will play a smaller role this year.

Dr. RONALD WALTERS (Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland): The Bradley effect this time will likely be overwhelmed by the new registrations and by the shifts in little things, like black Republicans voting for Barack Obama. It's not a normal election.

LIASSON: The Obama campaign is adamant that the Bradley effect is no longer a factor. Obama aides say they know there are people who won't vote for Obama because he's black, but that's a different problem altogether. And they believe there are fewer of them this year, as well. Cornell Belcher is the DNC's pollster. He also advises Obama. He agrees with Ron Walters that this is not a normal election, because, Belcher says, this year voters' concerns about the economy are so overwhelming, they may help diminish traditional resistance to a black candidate.

Mr. CORNELL BELCHER (Pollster, Democratic National Committee): The economy is, to a certain extent, what terrorism was in 2004. The bad guy at the door isn't someone who may be out to blow you up. The bad guy at the door is a guy in a pinstripe suit with a foreclosure notice. So, it's a very dramatically different issue landscape then we saw in 2004.

LIASSON: But, says Ron Walters, that doesn't mean race isn't playing a role in the campaign.

Dr. WALTERS: The presidency is almost an anthropological leadership position. And I mean by that that it represents the head of a tribe to a lot of people. They want the president to be like them, look like them, etcetera. And to that extent, there's a lot of emotional content about who the president of the United States is. Barack Obama - part of the politics of this election is that he's been trying to overcome that cultural barrier.

LIASSON: So the consensus seems to be that while there are people who will not vote for Obama because he's black, there are probably a lot fewer of them who are willing to lie about it to pollsters. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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