The Prejudice That May Rear Its Head

Will Obama fall victim to the 'Bradley effect'?

Race is one of those thorny topics that people rarely want to talk about but sometimes can’t avoid. This is particularly true of the 2008 battle for the White House as the world waits to see if the United States has evolved enough to elect its first black president. According to the most recent Gallup daily tracking poll, Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama holds a double-digit lead over Republican rival Sen. John McCain by a margin of 52% to 41%. He also leads by single digits in many battleground states.

Obama has clearly answered questions about his readiness to lead, but is the nation ready for someone like him? Michael Fauntroy, a George Mason political scientist, has his doubts. Some of that doubt is based on the “Bradley effect,” a theory coined after Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, a black man who lost his 1982 bid for governor by a slim margin despite a clear lead in the polls on Election Day. This has led analysts to question whether voters tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate in an attempt to appear progressive but end up voting for the white candidate, and whether such a scenario is playing out in this year’s presidential election.

Fauntroy also cites a recent poll conducted by Stanford University, in which one-third of white Democrats said they have negative views about blacks. Given a choice of positive and negative adjectives to apply to blacks, 20% said “violent” strongly applied, 22% chose “boastful,” 29% “complaining,” 13% “lazy,” and 11% said irresponsible. When asked to apply positive adjectives, the respondents were “more likely to stay on the fence” than to offer a strongly positive assessment.

“According to the poll, Obama could potentially lose six percentage points by virtue of his being black, so I think we need to pay attention to a Bradley effect,” Fauntroy says. “I have my skepticism about whether the country is ready to elect a black president, but I also believe that these extraordinary economic times may turn around some of those voters, particularly white working-class voters, who have been quick to respond to the conservative priming, and vote against their self interests in past elections. I think for that reason, Obama’s the odds-on favorite.” In fact, he says, given the economic state of the nation and McCain’s struggles on the campaign trail, Fauntroy questions why Obama isn’t up by 15 points.

“Race is ingrained in our society, and it’s always going to be a factor in some part of the electorate. But I think this an election that because there are lots of other very important issues–the most predominant one is the economy–that people who may have racial prejudices and preferences will overlook those in this particular election because they may feel that Obama may have some new solutions for what’s going on,” says William Frey, a Brookings Institution senior fellow.

“I wouldn’t necessarily take the results of this election as evidence that racial bias has disappeared or gone down a lot, but

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