In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was poised to become the first African-American governor in history, leading his rival by 9 points or higher by some estimates. Come election day, he lost the race -- giving birth to the so-called Bradley Effect phenomenon. The question in 2008 is whether such an effect may be over-inflating Senator Obama's lead over John McCain in pre-election polls showing him leading by an average of 8 points. What historical trends and recent research on race as a factor--not to mention the record number of new registrations -- lead us to believe is that the Bradley Effect will not be a factor against Senator Obama in the outcome of this election. Furthermore, the so-called Facebook Effect may mean a net-gain for the Senator from Illinois.
The first argument against the Bradley Effect as a factor in the 2008 election is that it happened a quarter century ago. Subsequent elections in the 1980s and early 1990s, such as Doug Wilder's bid for Governor of Virginia, provided supporting evidence for the effect as more African-American candidates underperformed the polls -- regardless of whether they lost or won. However, in more recent elections African-American candidates' performances have been consistent with pre-election public opinion polls. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Harold Ford, Jr. are often cited as examples of African-American candidates who performed very close to pre-election predictions.
Furthermore, while it is argued that the Bradley Effect causes an inflated prediction of about six percentage points Obama's lead has consistently been over seven percent for several weeks--still putting him ahead of his rival, Senator John McCain.
The example of what happened in New Hampshire in the primaries, where Obama was leading by comfortable margins in pre-election polling but narrowly lost he contest to Hillary Clinton, is sometimes pointed out as a possible Bradley Effect being in play. However, as Nate Silver demonstrates in his article "The Persistent Myth of the Bradley Effect," Obama outperformed Clinton in more contests and "on average, Barack Obama overperformed the Pollster.com trendline by 3.3 points on election day." There may have been other factors in play here that had little to do with race.
The Facebook Effect--the use of the internet and the surge in enthusiasm and involvement by young people, that is--could very well produce a net gain for Senator Obama. In his article "The Real Debate," Howard Fineman argues that despite the fact that "there are white voters, especially older ones, who will hide their prejudice until, alone in the voting booth, they vote against a black candidate because of his race," we must not forget that "this year there is another force at work: young voters, especially those under 30." The young voters, he argues, are "more or less oblivious to race in their political thinking." According to AP reports, there have been over 3.5 million new voters registered this year alone and "figures are up for blacks, women and young people" (Fox). Young voters turned out in record numbers in the primaries and have overwhelming favored Senator Obama over John McCain, according to Gallup and other polling sources--of the 13% first time voters, Gallup reports, 65% will likely be voting for Obama, as opposed to 30% for McCain. Overall, Obama is leading McCain 59% to 38 % among likely voters under the age of 30.
We may conclude that based on historical trends, polling data, the changing electorate, and more importantly priority in terms of voter preference, the so-called Bradley Effect will be a negligible factor in the 2008 presidential election. In fact, the surge in young voter participation and Obama's advantage among first-time voters will likely result in a net gain for Barack Obama. Amidst all the talk about how big of a factor race may or may not be a factor we often forget the inherent advantages that the Democratic ticket has going into this election: the economy is in trouble and the number one issue on voters' minds and the incumbent party and president have very unfavorable ratings. As Nate Silver points out:
"Barack Obama has an advantage that Howard Dean and George McGovern didn't have -- the partisan ecology is so favorable to the Democrats that he can win the election even without turning out young voters. But they are his ace in the hole. If he can get them to turn out in something resembling the proportion that older voters do, his election becomes a near certainty."
The political climate, combined with even a small advantage in terms of the Facebook Effect may just be all Obama needs to become the very first African-American President of the United States.
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