Former Governor L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia writes in Politico of the possible impact on this year’s election of the so-called "Bradley effect" — which he says, rather proudly, some have called the "Wilder effect," since a similar thing happened to him when he ran for governor in 1989. Then, as when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley had run for governor of California seven years previously, the pre-election opinion polls showed him with a substantial lead over his Republican opponent. But where Mr Bradley had lost to George Deukmejian, Mr Wilder just scraped home by under half a percentage point over Marshall Coleman — because, says Governor Wilder, "voters won’t admit that they will not vote for a minority candidate."
Before the election of President Obama in 2008, there were some worries that the Bradley effect — or the Wilder effect — would rob him of the victory promised by psephologists. Afterwards, the phenomenon was widely thought to be extinct. Now that polls are indicating a close race this autumn, the theory is being taken out and dusted down once again. What else but racism could explain why anyone would vote against the President? Governor Wilder calls our attention to a front-page New York Times story by Sabrina Tavernise datelined Steubenville, Ohio and headlined: "4 Years Later, Race Is Still Issue for Some Voters." In the article, people are quoted as saying ugly and vaguely menacing things like these:
¶"Certain precincts in this county are not going to vote for Obama. . . I don’t want to say it, but we all know why."
¶"I’ll just come right out and say it: he was elected because of his race,"
¶"He’s everything they hate . . An affirmative-action baby. Got the Nobel Prize without deserving it."
¶"To me, he didn’t have a platform. Black people voted him in, that’s why he won. It was black ignorance."
If, as Ms Tavernise claims, five out of the fifty people she interviewed in and around Steubenville spontaneously made comments like these, or thought others were making such comments, or "raised race directly as a reason they would not vote for Mr. Obama," that would presumably not result in any Bradley effect. Willing to expose their racism to a New York Times reporter, they would hardly be likely to conceal it from a pollster. But the reporter appears to be suggesting that such comments mean there must be more who think that way but are unwilling to say so. Thus she concludes that "race remains a powerful factor among a small minority of voters" and that, in particular, "Mr. Obama’s race is a deal-breaker" for such people, who are "otherwise loyal Democrats."
Maybe. But there is another class of voters — and not, I suspect, a small minority — whose reason for concealing their intentions might be racial sensitivity precisely to that kind of charge against them by the likes of Ms Tavernise and The New York Times. Consider the difference between this election and previous ones where an incumbent seeking a second term has faced a strong challenger. Clearly, anti-Carter voters in 1980 or anti-Bush voters in 1992 would not have felt constrained by racial sensitivity from telling pollsters that they were fed up with the incumbent, whereas anti-Obama voters in 2012 very well might — for fear that their political decision would be misconstrued as being racially motivated. Is that racist? On the contrary, it is close to its opposite: the fear of the racially sensitive of being thought racist — and of the power to embarrass them of those who devote their energies to seeking out racial motives where none exist.