What’s With This “Bradley Effect” Stuff?

When it comes to U.S. racism, euphemisms and wink-wink are becoming more common. We have the quaint euphemisms called the “Bradley effect” and the “Wilder effect,” which are being written about much these days because Senator Obama is the likely Democratic nominee. Why aren’t these terms called what they really are–the white-racism effect?

A wikipedia article usefully summarizes some data on this white-racism effect:

The name Bradley effect is derived from a 1982 campaign involving Tom Bradley, the long-time mayor of Los Angeles, California. Bradley, who was black, ran as the Democratic party’s candidate for Governor of California against Republican candidate George Deukmejian, who was white. The polls on the final days before the election consistently showed Bradley with a lead. In fact, based on exit polls on election day, a number of media outlets projected a Bradley win that night; early editions of the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle featured a headline proclaiming “Bradley Win Projected.” However, Bradley narrowly lost the race. Post-election research indicated that a smaller percentage of white voters actually voted for Bradley than polls had predicted, and that voters who had been classified by those polls as “undecided” had gone to Deukmejian in statistically anomalous numbers.

The article also discusses numerous similar discrepancies for black candidates, including for Douglas Wilder (running for Virginia governor), David Dinkins (running for New York mayor), Harold Washington (running for Chicago mayor), and Jesse Jackson (running for Democratic presidential nominee in the Wisconsin Democratic primary. All these candidates did not do as well as election polls or exit polls indicated they would. In all cases, the suggestion is that white voters did not wish to be seen as “prejudiced” and said they were voting for a black candidate to a stranger (a pollster) when in fact they had not intention of doing so.

The article points out a related phenomenon for overtly white-racist candidates:

Ironically, a similar phenomenon was noticed during the early 1990’s electoral contests with former Ku Klux Klan leader and Nazi sympathizer David Duke. Many potential voters would not tell pollsters that they favored Duke (as they feared the ostracization that could result from being on record as being a Duke supporter), but would go on to vote for him anyway. The commentary at that time was that Duke “flies under the radar.”

And then it summarizes a University of Washington study:

After the Super Tuesday elections of February 5, political science researchers from the University of Washington found trends suggesting the possibility that with regard to Obama, the effect’s presence or absence may be dependent on the percentage of the electorate that is black. The researchers noted that to that point in the election season, opinion polls taken just prior to an election tended to overestimate Obama in states with a black population below eight percent, to track him within the polls’ margins of error in states with a black population between ten and twenty percent, and to underestimate him in states with a black population exceeding twenty-five percent. The first finding suggested the possibility of the Bradley effect, while the last finding suggested the possibility of a “reverse” Bradley effect in which black voters might have been reluctant to declare to pollsters their support for Obama. By comparison, with only one exception, in each state with inaccurate opinion polls for the Democratic contest involving Obama, those same polls accurately predicted the outcome of that state’s Republican contest, featuring only white candidates.

Nowhere in the article is the impact of most white voters having been raised in fundamentally racist society discussed, nor is there a straightforward discussion of the reason for these voting patterns being the “white-racism effect”–that is, the reality that many whites will not vote for a black candidate just because he or she is black and the fact that such a view is linked to an extensive negative racial framing of African Americans.

Indeed, the article prefers to talk in terms of “racial prejudice” and offers possible counter explanations other than “prejudice” to account for this white voting pattern. Nowhere in the article’s text do the words “racist” or “racism” appear. Once again, the author of the article tiptoes around the reality of systemic racism with the media’s sad euphemism, the “Bradley effect.”


  1. Aaron P.

    The “Bradley Effect” is a very strange way of discussing the matter, as essentially they are saying the “black effect.” As you, and others on the blog, have correctly noted, whites always seem to be absent in any problem that involves race/racism. The issue is almost always framed as so that racism is a problem of the minority group in question, and not the white majority. It should at least be called the “Deukmejian Effect” as that would appropriately place the cause of the social problem appropriately on whites. Perhaps that just doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily… but if it were only a matter of linguistic ease, white racism would have been the clear choice.
    I am obviously not some mystic serer that can divine whether Obama will win the general election. Obviously if the white racism effect is valid, Obama will have problems, especially with the most recent polls I have seen putting him in essentially a dead heat with McCain. However, I am encouraged not only by the fact that he certainly does have a chance (albeit an outside one) of being the first non-white male president in our county’s history, but also by the fact that his winning the nomination is a wonderful step in the right direction. While I am certainly not of the mindset of major media outlets that seem to feel that having major non-white male candidates will now be common place in future elections, it still demonstrates progress. Again, Obama does not in my mind represent an end to racism, the emergence of a post-racial generation, or the creation of a sustained threat to white racial power in the US that the mass media seems to hope for. The media always attempts to play up the historical significance of every story it covers, as if the institution, so obsessed with its own importance, is hoping that every story it reports will be the seminal moment that is replayed countless times, and becomes the iconic representation of a generation. I certainly am not as optimistic as they. It is an important historic moment, but unfortunately it is most likely a moment and not a movement towards real racial change in America.
    However, living in Texas, studying race (even if it is only my minor area), and generally being inundated with racial incidents that make me deeply sad, I will take this win. It may be a win via a last second Hail-Mary play, a bottom of the 9th homerun, or a half-court lob that just beats the buzzer, but I count it as a win. And dag-nabit, I think there are a lot of people out there that need this win (far more than I) and need some reason to be optimistic, to believe if only for a moment that the good-guy can win, to feel that dreams that have germinated in the minds of African-American people for over 400 years could maybe, someday soon come true, and to hope beyond all reason, logic, or evidence that something good might be happening here.


  1. The Bradley Effect | The LA Progressive

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