Tom Bradley Didn't Lose Because of Race
Voters rejected his liberal policies.
By SAL RUSSO
If John McCain manages to overtake Barack Obama, the media will have a ready answer for the result: racism. Over the past generation, every time a black liberal candidate runs for public office, pundits are quick to assert that the so-called Bradley Effect will rear its ugly head and deny justice in America for another African-American.
The Bradley Effect refers to the proposition that white voters lie to pollsters when they claim to support a black candidate, because of prejudice. Every time Barack Obama lost a primary to Hillary Clinton, someone offered race as an explanation. It's a comforting narrative for liberals. But it defies the reality of the campaign that gave birth to it.
In 1982, California's Republican Attorney General George Deukmejian was trailing badly in the campaign for governor against African-American Democrat Tom Bradley, the popular mayor of Los Angeles. But he won the election by 93,345 votes out of nearly eight million cast. Public pollsters and others were stunned; they'd already proclaimed Bradley the victor and turned their attention to the U.S. Senate race between Republican San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
Pollsters also predicted a Jerry Brown victory. Mr. Wilson won handily. The explanation for both Republican wins was simple. Voters rejected two liberal candidates. While political insiders and the Bradley people were shocked at the election results, the Deukmejian campaign was confident of victory -- thanks to the information it was getting from private pollster Gary Lawrence. 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. T
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.
Tom Bradley enjoyed the same type of love affair from the media that Barack Obama does today. Both candidates have appeared larger than life and hardly fallible. Indeed, both have compelling stories and project as decent, well-intentioned public servants.
That is part of their appeal. But when the lights of the campaign shined brightly on the candidates, their flaws became more apparent. In short, Mr. Bradley was defeated because he was too liberal, not too black.
Mr. Obama was struggling in the polls until the economic news distracted voters from becoming more aware of how liberal he really is. If John McCain wins, the Bradley Effect will be trotted out to explain it. Nevertheless, it will be Mr. Obama's political views, not his skin color, that voters reject.
Mr. Russo is president of Russo Marsh + Associates, a consulting firm that worked for the 1982 Deukmejian campaign. He then served as the deputy chief of staff to Gov. Deukmejian.