By Farooq A. Kperogi
There has been some good news for Barack Obama this week. After being in a statistical dead heat with John McCain for several weeks—in an election year that should ordinarily be a cakewalk for Democrats given the Republican Party’s current unprecedented unpopularity—he has rebounded with his most impressive lead in the polls in recent times. But some people say if you factor in what has been called the Bradley or Wilder effect, his lead may be more modest than it seems—or perhaps non-existent even.
According to the Gallup daily tracking poll, America’s most respected opinion polling agency that has accurately predicted all but one American presidential election, Obama now leads McCain 50 percent to 42 percent in a measurement of American voter sentiments over the past couple of days.
Rasmussen Reports, another well-regarded independent opinion survey agency, gave Obama a significant, though slightly less giant, lead over McCain. Prior to this, both candidates had been tied at 45 percent in most polls. Some surveys had even given John McCain a slight, statistically insignificant but nonetheless symbolically significant lead in the polls.
American elections are heavily poll-driven. But because the polls fluctuate from time to time depending on the mood of the electorate, the dictates of contemporary events, and the comportment--and gaffes-- of candidates, they are updated periodically. To be competitive in the polls, which give candidates both bragging rights and political capital, politicians often speak “poll-tested” phrases and act “post-tested” acts, as Americans call carefully choreographed political performances designed to improve politicians’ likeability among voters.
Obama’s latest lead in the polls has been attributed to his eloquent and electrifying August 28 acceptance speech at the just concluded Democratic convention in Denver, Colorado. The speech was delivered to an enthusiastic crowd of supporters that numbered nearly 800,000 and was watched by about 40 million people, making it the biggest television event in America’s entire political history.
No political speech in America’s history has been watched by as many people. It doubled John Kerry’s acceptance speech four years ago and nearly doubled George Bush’s.
According to Nielsen Media Research, America’s preeminent media audience measurement research company known for its “Nielson rating” which scientifically measures TV viewership, more people watched Obama’s acceptance speech than watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics game in China, the grand finale of the “American Idol” (a wildly popular, participatory American reality show that seeks to discover the best young singer in the country), or this year’s American Academy Awards.
Why Obama’s speech is helped him
Obama’s speech, apart from its rhetorical brilliance and perfect delivery, achieved two crucial tasks: First, it confronted head-on and deflated the Republican Party characterization of Obama as a vacuous “celebrity” (in the mould of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears) with no substance.
Second, it tried to show that Obama is not merely an exotic African American born by the union of a Kenyan father and an American mother, but that he is also just as ordinary an American as anybody else is.
Shortly after Obama’s massively successful European tour that American political pundits predicted would earn him significant political capital at home, the John McCain campaign, in a bid to do violence to whatever gains he might get from the tour, sponsored a damning and effective ad in major American TV networks and in what the campaign called “11 key states.”
The ad shows massive crowds of “Obamamaniacs” (as intensely enthusiastic Obama supporters are derisively called) swooning over him and chanting his name. Then an announcer says: “He is the biggest celebrity in the world”—a subtle reference to his European tour that attracted unprecedented crowds.
Shortly after that, the camera shows brief, but effectively subliminal footage of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, two crowd-pulling American pop culture icons that have become the byword for flippancy and shallowness in American popular discourse. And the announcer again says: “But is he ready to lead?” before rolling out a litany of his allegedly injurious plans for America.
Political analysts had dismissed the ad as childish. They said it would be counterproductive. But it turned out to be very effective. After the ad was aired and analyzed in the media, Obama’s poll numbers not only began to plunge downward, the thematic preoccupation of American media punditry shifted to analyzing the merits of the ad, which invariably turned a more critical searchlight on Obama’s “substance” and readiness to lead. The ad also pushed Obama to the defense.
The acceptance speech was Obama’s opportunity to fight back even more forcefully. In the speech, he took time to define, in concrete terms, what he means by “change” without getting too specific to the point of boring his viewers who are known to resent “wonks” (i.e., people who are boringly studious and detailed). In so doing, he showed that he was a “celebrity” unlike Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Polls showed his strategy worked.
The second task was to show that he was also American at his core. The McCain campaign appears to have adopted a strategy that Hillary Clinton’s former chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, had suggested to her: to frame Obama as “fundamentally not American.”
A memo Penn wrote to Hillary Clinton, which has now been leaked to the press, suggested that Obama’s multicultural background, which is conferring on him a lot of symbolic and political capital, should be spun in a negative light.
“All these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light,” wrote Penn whose consulting firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, has been paid more than $4.3 by the Clinton campaign and is still being owed $1.5 million at the time of filing this report. “It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values.”
The McCain campaign has adopted this recommendation, which Hillary Clinton apparently didn’t implement to its fullest. Obama’s acceptance speech succeeded in moving his biographic narrative from that of an exotic multicultural American to one that situates it firmly within America.
For instance, by talking about his white mother “who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree; who once turned to food stamps but was still able to send us to the best schools in the country with the help of student loans and scholarships,” he not only humanized himself, he also reminded Americans that he is not the snooty, privileged elitist he has been portrayed to be.
But most importantly, by talking at some length about his white grandparents who brought him up, he Americanized himself in a way he had never done before. “In the faces of those young veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see my grandfather, who signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton's Army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the GI Bill,” he said to applause from the audience.
More was to come. “And when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman,” he said of his 86-year-old white grandmother who became the first American woman to rise to the position of vice president of a bank and who still lives in Hawaii in the same apartment where she raised Obama. “She's the one who taught me about hard work. She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she's watching tonight, and that tonight is her night as well.”
The reference to his grandmother (who once said her favorite pastime is watching Obama on CNN everyday) drew tears from many white women in the audience. Then he went for the clincher: “I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine. These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me. And it is on their behalf that I intend to win this election and keep our promise alive as President of the United States.”
The speech resonated with the nearly 40 million Americans who watched it when it was broadcast and many more who watched it after. Obama reminded Americans that contrary to Mark Penn’s assertion—and McCain’s campaign rhetoric—he is “at his center fundamentally American in his thinking, values” and family background, a theme that tended to be pushed to the back burner in the (mostly benign) eagerness to focus on his exotic “otherness.”
Poll bounce not unusual
Although the Obama speech was very instrumental in his dramatic poll bounce against McCain, it is not unusual. According to American political pundits, it is traditional for candidates to receive boosts in their poll numbers after a party convention. John Kerry, for instance, got a 3 percent boost in the polls after his acceptance speech in 2004—lower than Obama’s but still significant given that he was trailing behind George Bush prior to this.
But Obama’s bounce is slightly less than what Al Gore received in 2000 and Bill Clinton received in 1992. It is expected that McCain will also receive a gain in his poll numbers at the end of the Republican National Convention taking place in Twin Cities, Minnesota. It is not clear by what margin this would be and whether it would completely erase Obama’s gains.
The debate over Bradley or Wilder effect
The question people are asking is: are the polls showing Obama’s bounce reliable? Or, for that matter, are all polls about Obama accurate reflections of voter sentiments about him? Could the polls be victims of the Bradley or Wilder effect?
The Bradley or Wilder effect is the phenomenon where white people lie to pollsters about their willingness to vote for black candidates because they do not want to be seen as racist. This reality exaggerates the electoral chances of African American candidates.
The phrase “Bradley effect” is named after Tom Bradley, an African American who, in 1982, ran for governor of the state of California. The opinion polls showed him leading his white opponent by several margins. In fact, exit polls (a poll of voters as they leave the voting place; usually taken by news media in order to predict the outcome of an election) showed that he had won the election. Based on these exit polls, the media declared him the winner.
But when the actual election results were released, he lost to his closest white opponent by a wide margin.
In 1989, seven years after Bradley’s shocking defeat, Douglas Wilder, America’s first elected African-African governor, nearly lost to his white opponent, even though opinion polls showed that he was ahead of him by 15 percent. He won by a mere 6,700 votes.
Obama himself has had close brushes with this effect, although in less dramatic ways. According to the Associated Press, “exit polls in 28 states overstated Obama's actual share of the final vote.” The most stunning, perhaps, was Obama’s defeat in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Polls—and even exit polls— had shown that he would defeat Hillary Clinton. But Hillary won the primary by a slight margin.
So how should people read the polls predicting Obama’s electoral chances? Take 5 percent off the numbers? Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, says no. He argued that there is no reason to suppose that people are being untruthful to pollsters about their willingness to vote for Obama.
He told The Associated Press that "because I don't think there's a lot of stigma in saying you're voting for John McCain," people have no reason to lie about their support for Obama. He said if the question pollsters ask were: "Do you want to vote for the white guy or the black guy?" then it would be reasonable to expect people to lie.
But he nonetheless made the instructive point that the major problem poll takers encounter is that lower-income white males—most of whom resent Obama and who tend to be generally less racially tolerant—often decline to participate in the polls.
However, Anthony G. Greenwald, who teaches psychology at the University of Washington, told the Associated Press that there may actually be a "reverse Bradley Effect" for Obama in this presidential contest. He brought up the example of what happened during the Democratic primary where states with numerically significant African-American populations, such as Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia, gave Obama more votes than polls had forecast.
Again, he said Obama’s popularity with young white people who do not participate in polls may actually cancel out the effect of lower-income white males who have so far shown a dislike for Obama and who also avoid participating in polls.
Daniel J. Hopkins, a scholar from Harvard University who systematically studied the Bradley or Wilder effect from 1986 to 2006 said his research has led him to the conclusion that the phenomenon has practically disappeared in the wake of more racial openness in the American society. Hopkins arrived at his conclusion from his study of 133 gubernatorial and Senate elections.
But Douglas Wilder, the man after whom the phenomenon is named (and who is the current mayor of Richmond, the capital of the state of Virginia), doesn’t share Hopkins’ optimism. When he was asked if he thought the “Wilder effect” is dead and ready to be buried, he said "No, I won't say that. I won't go that far."
In many ways, Obama is a different candidate from previous Black American politicians, and his support among white people in the polls may not be wildly off the mark, but in a presidential race where questions of race occasionally flare up, analysts say it would be wise to take the polls with a healthy dose of skepticism.