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Obama Does Great in Polls – But Don’t Believe Them

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By George E Curry

NNPA Columnist

According to the polls, Barack Obama is steadily widening his lead over Republican rival John McCain to become the next president of the United States. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday shows Obama with a 53 percent to 43 percent lead among likely voters.

There is only one problem - don't believe the polls.

As the Washington Post noted in a story on its poll, at this stage in 1992, Bill Clinton held a 14-point lead over President George H.W. Bush yet he won by only 6 percent. In mid-October 1976, Jimmy Carter held a 13-point lead over incumbent Gerald Ford but won by only two points.  

When the issue of race is added to the mix, conventional wisdom - which is often neither conventional nor wise - goes out of the window.

Uppermost in the minds of African-Americans is the Bradley effect, named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who sought to become governor of California in 1982. Even last-minute polls showed him leading by a wide margin of victory. Yet, Bradley narrowly lost the election to Republican George Deukmejian. Many say it was because White voters lied to pollsters about their willingness to vote for an African-American.

But it wasn't just, as John McCain would say, that one.

Pre-election poll also overstated the margin of victory for Harold Washington in Chicago, David Dinkins in New York City and Doug Wilder in Virginia.

But Bradley's race predated the Internet and cell phones and before Black music did more to erase racial barriers than any presidential speech. In fact, there are an increasing number of people questioning the premise of the Bradley effect.

In a story headlined, "Do Polls Lie About Race?" New York Times reporter Kate Zernike wrote: "But pollsters and political scientists say concern about a Bradley effect - some call it a Wilder effect or a Dinkins effect, and plenty call it a theory in search of data - is misplaced. It obscures what they argue is the more important point: there are plenty of ways that race complicates polling.

"Considered alone or in combination, these factors could produce an unforeseen Obama landslide with surprise victories in the South, a stunningly large Obama loss, or a recount-thin margin. In a year that has already turned expectations upside down, it is hard to completely reassure the fretters."

Looking back, some observers say pollsters got it wrong with Bradley not because White voters lied to pollsters, but because they failed to factor in the absentee ballots. Whatever the reason, some researchers think that's less likely to happen today.

According to the New York Times: "In a new study, Daniel J. Hopkins, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, considered 133 elections between 1989 and 2006 and found that Blacks running for office before 1996 suffered a median Bradley effect of 3 percentage points. Blacks running after 1996, however, performed about 3 percentage points better than their polls predicted."

As the debate continues about whether the Bradley effect is valid, the McCain camp continues to exploit the issue of race.

When Obama's name has been mentioned at McCain-Palin rallies, there have been cries of "Kill him!" and "Off with his head!"

It has gotten so bad that McCain has urged his followers to tone down the rhetoric. Away from rallies, however, his attack ads use code words to argue, as Palin put it, that Obama is "not one of us."

But observers have been able to see past the code words.

"From the start, there have always been two separate but equal questions about race in this election," Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times. "Is there still enough racism in America to prevent a Black man from being elected president no matter what? And, will Republicans play the race card? The jury is still out on the first question until Nov. 4. But we now have the unambiguous answer to the second: Yes."

Rich explained, "McCain, who is no racist, turned to this desperate strategy only as Obama started to pull ahead."

He isn't the only person who feels McCain is playing to racial fears.

"Obama has been running as a post-racial candidate from the start, and he has been doing it very well," David Brinkley, a noted presidential historian told the New York Times. "But the fact of the matter is that some voters - we can't know yet how many - will not get past his race. And I very much believe that the McCain-Palin ticket is tapping into that."

And there is plenty to tap into. In that same New York Times article, John Schuster, a Republican from Wheeling, W.Va., said,"What you hear around here is, would you rather have a black friend in the White House, or a white enemy?" He explained, "Most guys I know are for McCain, and a lot of it's because of race."

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.  

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