Race within the race: The specter of Tom Bradley in election 2008

The jubilation of Barack Obama’s stunning win in Iowa was muted by the dismay of his defeat in New Hampshire.

Commentators have conjured up every conceivable explanation for New Hampshire’s sudden change of heart as Obama’s nine point lead evaporated within 24 hours. But, as they often do, most media pundits have ignored one of the most obvious factors: race. Truly they are color blind.

The specter of Tom Bradley’s California gubernatorial run in 1984 now haunts the 2008 election.

Like Obama, Bradley, a moderate black Democrat and former Los Angeles mayor, breached racial barriers and inspired massive support among white voters. But once he was perceived to be a serious potential winner, a backlash set in that prevented Bradley’s victory.

In 1984 preelection polls and even the election day exit polls gave Tom Bradley such an overwhelming lead that news organizations hailed him the victor virtually the moment the polls closed. Instead he suffered an upset loss to Republican George Deukmejian.

Much the same dynamic sunk Andrew Young’s gubernatorial bid in Georgia in 1990.

Behind the white curtain that protects the privacy of the voter, a large number of voters in California in 1984, Georgia in 1990 and New Hampshire in 2008 could not bring themselves to vote for the black man that they claimed to be so excited about just 24 hours earlier.

This so-called “Tom Bradley Effect” had not yet come into play in Iowa because Obama was not yet taken as a serious threat to win the nomination and because the caucus process was so intimate and open. His dramatic victory in that state means that no one can any longer doubt that he has a real chance to win.

Race is now openly central to the race. Are white Americans ready for a black president?

Most white Republicans and many white Democrats may not seriously consider voting for Obama, even if their politics coincide with his. Others may be on the fence. And still others, at this point a definite minority but clearly growing, say they will vote for him.

A lesson of New Hampshire and a testimony to the power of race-¬The Tom Bradley Effect¬-is such that even significant numbers of that growing and relatively racially enlightened group that says they will vote for Obama, won’t.

Surely race was not the only factor behind which candidate that any person may support. But to ignore it altogether, as most commentators have in the wake of the New Hampshire primary, is a grand act of racial denial that is a disservice to all of us.

For once, let’s deal with race straight ahead.

Obama supporters should be thrilled that Obama climbed from a 20 point deficit to a nine point lead in New Hampshire’s preelection polls. But now it is clear that even that spectacular climb, a climb whose significance should not be lost, was not enough to win.

Of course Hillary Clinton also faces a version of the Tom Bradley Effect: Is the U.S. ready for a woman president? The vicious invective aimed her way can hardly be explained without factoring sexism into the equation.

But, in truth, Hillary’s biggest task, and indeed for any Democratic candidate, may be to reverse the voting trends of white women. In 2004 white women went for Bush by a 55-44 margin and were the critical swing vote in his election. Women of color went for Kerry by 75 to 24.

The woman vote is clearly color coded.

The Good News is that Obama is a bonafide contender who is breaking racial barriers daily and Clinton is similarly bursting gender blocks. The Bad News is that means racism and sexism have become even greater factors in the voting.

The Grand Opportunity is that it will give all of us a chance to appeal to our better selves and overcome our so often denied racial and gender biases.

In this country, racial progress like that Obama is making always brings racial resistance. Further progress is contingent on seriously addressing the resistance.

Whatever the outcome of the nomination and general election, we all have the chance to ensure that the 2008 election serves to advance racial and gender progress by openly and frankly addressing these fundamental issues.

Bob Wing is a writer who works with racial justice groups in Los Angeles. Marqueece Harris-Dawson is executive director of the Community Coalition in Los Angeles.