Some years ago, I learned of an interesting phenomenon known as the Bradley Effect. In 1982 Tom Bradley, an African-American, was running for governor. He was doing extremely well in the polls and was apparently well supported by white voters. But, when the election day arrived, he lost. Many experts regarded this result as being due to racism: white voters expressed support for Bradley in the polls and in public, but when it came down to the actual vote, most would not and did not support a black man.
There have, of course, been alternative explanations given. One is that the results were not because of racism but because of problems with polling. Political polls are inductive generalizations. The basic idea is that a sample is taken from the relevant population (in this case the voters) and examined. What is learned about the sample is then generalized to the whole population. Obviously, since the poll is smaller than the whole population, there is always the very real possibility that the sample results will not match the population in question. To use an analogy, if I pull 30 marbles from a bucket of 100 marbles and find that 15 of them are blue and the rest green, then I would conclude that 50% of the marbles are blue and the rest green (with a margin of error, of course). However, I could be off by quite a bit. I could even have selected the only 15 blue marbles in the entire bucket. Obviously, political polls are more complex than pulling marbles from a bucket, but the basic problem still remains.
In the Bradley case, one question is whether this problem adequately accounts for the difference between the polls and the actual results. On one hand, in theory it could do so. But, of course, this is mostly just a theoretical. On the other hand, race could be the actual explanation. Obviously, few people will admit that they said one thing in a poll and then voted differently because of racism. But, it does seem reasonable to infer that race was a relevant factor in these results.
Right now, Obama is enjoying significant support among white voters. There have also been polls that indicate he would beat McCain in the general election. Not surprisingly, there is the concern that Obama might eventually fall victim to the Bradley effect. To be specific, he might become the Democrat’s candidate, poll well and then (like Al Gore) end up losing the actual election.
This is a reasonable concern and it is one that Obama seems to be very well aware of. He is careful not to put a great deal of emphasis on race and has focused on identifying himself primarily as the candidate of change rather than primarily as the black candidate. This has lead to some controversy and even criticism that he is not “black enough.”
Some might argue that he is somehow selling out or failing to be authentic when he does not put an emphasis on race. They will, of course, admit that he does address matters of race. But, as they point out, he clearly fails to define himself primarily in terms of race.
While these critics do make some interesting points, Obama’s strategy seems to be both effective and morally correct. From a purely cynical standpoint, it has no doubt helped him with whites. From a moral standpoint it can also be justified-if he can make race matter less, then he would have achieved a laudable goal. The dream is, after all, that a person should be judged by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin.