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White House ’08: The Obama Effect

Column by Chris Graham

Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from an Obama-Biden supporter about the Wilder Effect – or what some folks call the Bradley Effect, the basics being a major-party candidate who is African-American whose support in pre- and post-election polling registers higher than actual performance in the polls.

“We’re going to need a bigger cushion than we have now.” “Didn’t you see the study by Stanford University?” “We’re doomed if we’re not up big.” This is the gist of what I get from Democrats who are much like fans of the sports teams at my beloved alma mater, the University of Virginia, who are used to seeing the boys in orange and blue race out to big leads in big games only to cough it up in the late stages for reasons seeming to have to do more with the color of their uniforms than anything else about them.

And it’s hard to deny that there will be some impact from the Wilder Effect – we in Virginia call it that because of our 1989 governor’s race, won by African-American Doug Wilder by less than half a percentage point when all of the pre-election polls had him winning by a margin of eight to ten points in his race with former attorney general (and Waynesboro native) Marshall Coleman, the Republican nominee. The Bradley Effect is so named for former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who had a similar lead in the pre-election polling over Republican Tom Deukmejian and actually lost his 1982 California governor’s race. (So maybe the Wilder Efffect represents something of an improvement in the intervening seven years, since he actually won.)

Just as I said that not a day goes by that I don’t hear from an Obama supporter fretting over what might happen, neither does a day go by where I don’t see something on the race front that is as we used to say back in the ’90s the kind of thing that makes you go hmmm … . A discussion on a recent Augusta Free Press thread of race issues included a comment from a reader suggesting that she’s not sure she can trust a “person of color with different values than mine” with her vote. And then there was the disturbing phone call that I received in my capacity as the volunteer chairman of the Waynesboro Democratic Committee from the city voter registrar’s office about a local Democrat who had been in the office three times to get voter-registration forms and had raised objection that he was not allowed to leave the office with more than he was being alloted. “You know how they get,” the caller said, referring to the objections that had been raised, and when I said I didn’t know what the caller was referring to, “Well, you know how people of color are, when they’re feeling that they’re being victimized.”

I’m not talking about people on the far-right fringe of the Republican Party here, just as we’re not seeing people we could classify as wingnuts introducing the speakers at McCain-Palin rallies referring to Obama openly as “Barack Hussein Obama” to loud cheers and jeers and calling Obama himself a “terrorist” to more of the same. The new chair of the Republican Party of Virginia, Jeff Frederick, is the cheerleader in those efforts here in Virginia, telling volunteers getting ready to do door-to-door canvassing for McCain-Palin in Prince William County that Obama and 9/11 terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden have in common that “both have friends that bombed the Pentagon,” invoking in Obama’s case his tenuous ties to ’60s radical William Ayers, a former member of a domestic group that in 1972 planted a bomb in a restroom in the Pentagon.

McCain himself refused to repudiate the statement, saying he would “have to look at the context of his remarks” first. Neither have I heard from any of my friends in the Virginia GOP calling for Frederick to apologize or back off or tamp down his incendiary words.

Is there any way that this “he’s a terrorist, he has a funny-sounding name, he’s one of those people who go around feeling victimized persons of color, he’s one of them” line of attack can’t have an impact on Election Day? I think there’s no doubt that it will. The Stanford/Associated Press review that has been talked about far and wide last month pegged the negative impact on Obama’s poll numbers based on race factors at as much as six percentage points. But a Gallup survey released last week, while confirming that 6 percent drag on Obama’s numbers, looked at the flip side as well, at the positive impact of Obama’s race at 9 percent, with the bump coming from significantly increased support from nonwhite voters. And another survey, conducted by Public Policy Polling, suggests that Obama’s gains in Virginia and other Southern states is based as much as if not more on shifts in the white vote than the nonwhite vote.

I think in the end that the two diverging trends will likely cancel each other out, in spite of the greatest efforts of Obama’s detractors, and in large part due to the dignity with which Obama has handled the run of smears from the other side.

If things play out as I foresee them, it will mark the dawn of a new day in American politics that we will look back as having begun a couple of years ago when this neverending ’08 White House cycle got under way.

No more Wilder Effect, no more Bradley Effect.

The Obama Effect. Has a nice ring to it. Don’t you think?

augusta free press
augusta free press