The Bradley Effect Reconsidered

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For the past 26 years, when political analysts have considered the effect of race in an election, they have warned about the “Bradley Effect.” As the story goes, race–and specifically, voters’ unwillingness to admit their own racist views–was the major reason that Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost his bid for California Governor in 1982, despite leading in the public polls against then-Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian. We heard a lot about it again this year, when Barack Obama got trounced by Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, despite having a double-digit lead in the polls that morning (though Obama’s own campaign insists that was largely the result of independent voters stampeding to vote in the GOP primary, when Obama’s Iowa victory, and the polls that followed, suggested that the Democratic contest was over).

Two op-eds today, in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, are suggesting that what happened Tom Bradley wasn’t all that much about race, either. What’s interesting is that we get these two perspectives from opposing sides of that election.

In the NYT, Blair Levin, who worked on Bradley’s campaign, writes:

On election night in 1982, with 3,000 supporters celebrating prematurely at a downtown hotel, I was upstairs reviewing early results that suggested Bradley would probably lose.

But he wasn’t losing because of race. He was losing because an unpopular gun control initiative and an aggressive Republican absentee ballot program generated hundreds of thousands of Republican votes no pollster anticipated, giving Mr. Deukmejian a narrow victory.

This is not to say that race wasn’t an issue; it was in 1982 and it has been since. But to those who keep citing the Bradley effect — not so fast. It’s more complicated than you think.

And in the WSJ, Deukmeijian’s former deputy chief of staff Sal Russo writes:

With less than a month to go, Mr. Bradley did enjoy a double-digit lead. Then the Deukmejian campaign focused on the increasing crime rate in Los Angeles under Mayor Bradley’s watch. A major effort was made to turn out disaffected Democrats in the rural interior of the state. People there were incensed at a confiscatory handgun initiative on the ballot supported by Bradley liberals but vigorously opposed by Mr. Deukmejian.

New campaign commercials shifted attention to the solid and steady hand of the then Attorney General Deukmejian, a welcome change from the quixotic and chaotic reign of Gov. Brown. The campaign also stoked concern that, as mayor of a big city, a Gov. Bradley might make Los Angeles, not California, a priority.

Private, daily tracking polls showed that, with a retooled campaign, Mr. Deukmejian methodically closed the gap. On the Sunday night before the day of the election — usually the last day of tracking polls the campaign will pay for — Mr. Deukmejian had closed to less than two percentage points. The campaign polled Monday night, too. It showed Mr. Deukmejian less than 1% behind. Private pollster Lawrence Research predicted to the campaign a razor-thin victory — exactly what happened.

The public polls stopped polling too soon, missing the Deukmejian surge. Most important, they ignored the absentee ballot. Mr. Deukmejian’s polling asked if people had voted absentee; other polls, including the exit polls, did not.

UPDATE: H/T commenter Elvis Elvisberg for leading us to this link (via Nate Silver) to a similar analysis by Deukmejian’s pollster Lance Tarrance.