Washington Independent: The Mis-Reading of the ‘Bradley Effect’

Washington Independent

The Mis-Reading of the ‘Bradley Effect’ 

Lance Tarrance, who polled for Deukmejian in 1982, got it closest to right. Recently, he wrote: “[A]nalysis of the 1982 election revealed the weakness in the Bradley Effect theory as Bradley actually won on Election Day turnout, but lost the absentee vote so badly that Deukmejian pulled ahead to win. That Bradley won the vote on Election Day would hardly seem to suggest a hidden or last minute anti-black backlash.”

In fact, this reveals that Bradley’s liberal supporters had bungled an important strategic decision. In hopes of increasing Democratic turnout, they qualified Proposition 15, a hand-gun control initiative, for the November 1982 ballot. Every gun owner in California was furious.

The National Rifle Assn. endorsed Deukmejian; and the first large-scale, aggressive absentee ballot campaign was launched by the GOP.

Prop. 15 lost by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. It was defeated in every county except San Francisco and Marin. According to the California Journal, “it was obliterated in rural California,” where turnout ran about 10 percent higher than in urban areas. And the absentee ballot count was lopsided in favor of the Republican.

Tens of thousands of gun lovers registered their vote against gun control and stuck around to mark their ballots for Deukmejian.

Nonetheless, Mervin Field’s exit polling was, to some extent, accurate. Field did not account for absentee ballot voters. His survey—like the actual results—showed a Bradley win at the ballot box.

There were other factors that contributed to imperfect polling — and Bradley’s loss. A lackluster campaign led to a low-turnout election. The Democratic Party, overall, did a mediocre job of getting out the vote. Bradley was also criticized for not energizing his African-American base.

In the end, black turnout was lower than expected — the higher-turnout model used by some pollsters could have skewed the poll results toward Bradley. In addition, some exit polls, according to the California Journal, revealed that the unpopularity of Jerry Brown, the departing Democratic governor who was running against Pete Wilson for the Senate, “rubbed off on Bradley.”

A far stronger case can be made for the impact of a “Bradley effect” in the 1969 race for Los Angeles mayor — when then-City Councilman Tom Bradley first challenged the conservative Democratic incumbent, Sam Yorty. Bradley finished first in a crowded primary, with 42 percent of the vote; Yorty came in second with 26 percent.

Before the head-to-head runoff. pre-election polls showed Bradley handily defeating Yorty. Then, in what was considered a major upset, Yorty won re-election, with 53 percent of the vote to Bradley’s 47 percent. Yorty succeeded, according to his biographer, John Bollens, by “riding to advantage a wave of fear, prejudice and reaction.”

Yorty portrayed Bradley as a Black Panther supporter and depicted the former cop as anti-police. The Political scientist Raphael Sonenshein wrote, “Yorty directly exploited white fears. His campaign ads ran in the real estate section of [San Fernando] Valley newspapers showing Bradley’s picture with the caption ‘Will Your City Be Safe with This Man?’”

Bradley took “a high road approach,” barely responding. In an election with record high turnout overall, Sonenshein observed, a hefty anti-Bradley vote coming from the San Fernando Valley, and dramatic shifts in support to Yorty “among whites, Jews and Latinos, were devastating” to Bradley’s chances.

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