‘Bradley’s narrow loss stemmed from a convergence of political difficulties for the mayor, who was then seeking to become the nation’s first African American governor, and only one of them was his race. Twenty-six years later, those engaged in that contest still differ on whether there was a Bradley effect.
More to the point for Obama, there is no evidence that one still exists. A recent study by a Harvard political scientist showed no sign since 1996 of an otherwise unexplained election day drop-off in support for African American candidates for governor or U.S. Senate.
That is not to say that race is not an issue, particularly as Obama seeks to become the first black president. Exit polls in primary states demonstrated that for many voters, Obama’s race was a stumbling block. But those voters were open about their views, suggesting that polls may be roughly accurate.
Joe Trippi, the deputy campaign manager for Bradley in 1982, thinks voter discomfort with the Democratic mayor’s race was key to his defeat but that those concerns have eased with time.
“Whatever doubts race caused 26 years ago, it doesn’t create the same level of doubt today,” Trippi said.
“Anyone who thinks it’s zero is kidding themselves,” he cautioned. “But it’s a hell of a lot closer to zero than it was. . . . I just don’t see this election as being close enough [for it] to matter.”
More than this campaign, the 1982 governor’s contest was fraught with the issue of race. It was less than a generation removed from the late-1960s riots in America’s cities, including Los Angeles, that sent fearful white voters scrambling for the suburbs. Bradley, the reserved, patrician mayor, a former police officer and city councilman, was running against George Deukmejian, the state’s Republican tough-on-crime attorney general and a former state legislator from Long Beach.
On the same ballot was a U.S. Senate race between Pete Wilson, then the GOP mayor of San Diego, and Jerry Brown, then the Democratic governor. Also on the ballot — and this would matter more — was Proposition 15, a measure that would have imposed statewide handgun registration and a freeze on new handgun sales. The candidates for governor lined up on opposite sides — Bradley supported it, Deukmejian opposed it.
Intent on brushing back gun controls, opponents of the measure mounted a massive voter registration drive to draw gun enthusiasts to the polls. At the same time, Republicans took advantage of a change in state law that allowed any Californian to vote by absentee ballot. In previous governor’s races, only those with medical needs or travel plans could vote absentee.