The Tom Bradley Effect

By Susan Estrich

September 12, 2020 5 min read

Tom Bradley, a former police officer who served as mayor of Los Angeles for 20 years, was supposed to win the 1982 governor's race. Every poll said so. He was endorsed by everybody. Going in to Election Day, those polls consistently showed him to be 10 points ahead of his opponent, George Deukmejian, a little-known Republican at the time.

Bradley lost.

Every poll was wrong — as many as 10 points wrong.

Thus was born the "Tom Bradley effect," which was more like a rule. People lie to pollsters, particularly when they are supporting the white guy against the Black guy. So, a Black politician has to be 10 points ahead going into the election to have a chance of winning.

That was in 1982. Sadly, the rule held for too long. I was sitting in front of a camera on election night in 1996 when I was handed an exit poll showing that Proposition 209, the constitutional amendment barring affirmative action by public institutions, was going to fail. I hosted a talk radio show at the time; I knew the poll was wrong. I asked for more polls, distinguishing between the phone polls and those conducted in person. The phone polls were far more accurate than the in-person exit interviews they had conducted. The proposition passed easily, with a 9-point margin.

This fall, 24 years later, a proposition will be on the ballot to repeal 209. It should pass. After the nation twice elected a Black president, some claimed that the Tom Bradley effect was over. That was before they were all wrong in predicting that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably, only to see all these secret Donald Trump supporters who showed up in places such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

"Trump voter" has become, in some circles, the ultimate put-down. You turn away from someone giving you a hard time, and you don't call them a name I can't print; you whisper or announce that he or she is a "Trump voter." Many Democrats simply cannot fathom how anyone would support Trump given the death toll of the pandemic and the economy and the lying and the rest.

The "deplorables" — the term Clinton famously used in one talk to describe Trump voters — know exactly what these Democrats and pundits think of them. Some Trumpers react to this with precisely the anger that Trumpism breeds. They put on their red caps, take off their masks and risk their lives to help Trump. The more he is denounced by the left and the media, the stronger their public and private support.

But surely, not all Trump supporters react that way. The results in 2016 prove that much. The polls showing Clinton well ahead were right in capturing what Americans were willing to say. The fact that they were equally consistently wrong in predicting the actual outcome tells you only that people were lying, not that pollsters can't count.

It's not just a matter of polls. I am certain that there are not an insignificant number of secret Trump voters among my family, friends and acquaintances. I don't ask, and they don't tell. Why take the abuse? Why tell someone who will insist on trying to change your mind, an exercise that usually results in reinforcing on both sides a lack of respect for the other. In the various settings I have found myself in over the years, I always know who is supporting the Democrat — those folks tend to tell me — but I have no idea how many Trump voters are in the room or at the table.

Or I do have an idea, but I'm not one of those Democrats who think that Trump supporters are all deplorable or that I can change someone's mind about something as important as how they will vote over the dinner table.

The question is not whether there are "secret" Trump supporters out there.

The question is how many there are.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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