I have written here before of the "Bradley effect," but that was in the context of the 2008 presidential election, a time when voters were deciding whether to elect the first black president. That wasn't as inconsequential a decision as you might think now, more than seven years after the fact. After all, Barack Obama has been elected president twice now. Voters face a different kind of decision in 2016.
Simply put, the Bradley effect refers to the 1982 California gubernatorial campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Bradley was black, and polls prior to the election showed him leading the race. But he lost — narrowly — to Republican George Deukmejian (who won by less than 100,000 votes out of more than 7.5 million).
I suppose it goes without saying that the outcome of that election prompted a lot of soul searching, and the general conclusion that most people seemed to reach was that Bradley fared better in the polls because those who were polled did not wish to appear racist — so even if they were undecided or leaning toward the Republican, they told the pollsters that they would vote for Bradley, thus creating an artificial lead for him.
When they went into the voting booths, though, the voters did not have to concern themselves with what others would think of them, and they pulled the lever for the Republican — regardless of what they may have told the pollsters.
I bring this up because I think we could be seeing a new — and fascinating — twist on that theme in the campaign of Donald Trump. It isn't necessary to say much about Trump. So much has already been said about him, including the seemingly daily assertions that the Trump campaign has peaked, which always seem to be followed by a new poll showing Trump with even more support than he had before. Clearly, this guy is tapping into something, with his rhetoric about Muslims and immigration, but it's something a lot of people don't seem to want to acknowledge.
It's all about perceptions. Thirty–three years ago, a lot of Californians didn't want to appear to be racist. Today, perhaps a lot of people don't want to appear to be supporting a racist. Well, a perceived racist.
In case you haven't heard, a Quinnipiac University poll that was released today suggests that half of Americans would be embarrassed if Trump became the president. Could the same dynamic be at work here?
It reminds me in a way of a congressional campaign in my district in central Arkansas a couple of years after the Bradley election. There was a rather flamboyant sheriff in Pulaski County at the time named Tommy Robinson, who had apparently been angling for higher office with some publicity stunts.
Now, that district was represented for decades by Democrat Wilbur Mills, and he was succeeded by a Democrat when he stepped down, but that Democrat chose to run for the U.S. Senate after serving a single term, and a Republican was elected to the seat. The Republican held the seat for six years, then he, too, chose to run for the Senate, and Tommy Robinson announced he was running for the House seat as a Democrat. Historically, it was the right choice. Until the Republican incumbent was elected, the district hadn't been represented by a Republican since Reconstruction.
I don't remember much about the advertising in the Democratic primary (which Robinson won in a runoff) or the general election, but I do remember one of Robinson's ads. I think he used it in both the primary and the general election. It showed a series of vignettes in which friends were talking and one would say, "Who are you voting for for Congress?" and the other would say something like, "Well, you'll probably be surprised, but I'm voting for Tommy Robinson."
And that opened the door to confront all the negative stories that had been circulating about Robinson for years.
Now, as it turned out, Robinson was a crook who got caught up in the House banking scandal. But that was still several years in the future when Robinson first ran for the House.
And my memory of that campaign is that pollsters were quite certain that Robinson's Republican opponent, Judy Petty (who lost to Mills 10 years earlier), would win. Polls were showing her leading, which wasn't really hard to imagine. Petty was running as a Ronald Reagan Republican in a year when Reagan carried three–fifths of the vote in that district.
But the Gipper's popularity didn't trickle down enough for Petty to prevail. Or perhaps those people who told the pollsters they would vote for Petty actually voted for Robinson instead.
And perhaps Donald Trump, like George Deukmejian and Tommy Robinson, will have the last laugh.