The “Bradley Effect” has been well known for a long time. In 1982, Tom Bradley was running for mayor of Los Angeles. Polls had Bradley ahead by some 20 points. Yet when the votes were counted, Bradley lost. Apparently, people told pollsters they would vote for Bradley but did not make good on their intentions in the privacy of the voting booth. They gave pollsters socially acceptable rather than accurate responses.
Pundits since then have wondered whether the Bradley Effect would manifest itself in the 2008 presidential election. There was little precedent to suggest it would not. But the country has changed a lot in 26 years so there was also no compelling reason to believe that Obama would become the latest victim of the Bradley Effect. The Bradley Effect, we hoped, would be an artifact of history.
But what about the Race Chasm effect? David Sirota described the “Race Chasm” in his March 31, 2008 OpEdNews article, “The Clinton Firewall.” This effect is more subtle but potentially just as devastating as the Bradley Effect.
Sirota ordered the 50 states and DC according to the percentages of their populations that are African-American. Then he noticed that states with populations that were either more than 17% or less than 6.1% African-American tended to vote for the African-American candidate.
States in the middle, where African-Americans made up between 6.1% and 16.9% of the population tended to vote for the white candidate. Those were the states in the race chasm.
This observation held mostly true through the 2008 Democratic primaries and there was little reason to think it would not be a factor in the general election. In the primaries, Obama won all the states with large African-American populations and over 70% of the mostly-white states. But Clinton dominated in the Chasm, winning 14 of the 17 state primaries or caucuses.
It was clear even during primary season that if the Race Chasm phenomenon persisted through the general election, Obama would face a serious structural impediment to being elected. The 17 states within the chasm hold 307 electoral votes.
This problem was apparently not lost on the Obama team, as they battled McCain in six large Chasm states: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. Missouri was undecided on election night but it did not really matter. Obama won the other five states’ 96 electoral votes and claimed the Presidency.
Had Obama lost those five Chasm states, McCain would have won exactly 270 electoral votes (including Missouri).
So the Race Chasm hypothesis is rejected. McCain narrowly prevailed in the mostly-Black states, 47 to 44 electoral votes. In the mostly-white states, Obama won by 78 to 50 electoral votes. But in the Chasm, which was supposed to heavily favor the white candidate, Obama won by a resounding 242 – 77 electoral votes.
Does this make the Race Chasm effect passé? Has it gone the way of the Bradley Effect? Have we entered some period of post-racial détente in American society? It would be nice to think so, but it will take more that the results of one election to support sweeping statements like that.
Yet Obama’s outsized victory on November 4 does send an unmistakable message to all of us that race is no longer an automatic and insurmountable barrier to high elective office in these United States. That fact alone makes this year’s win a victory for Americans everywhere.