Is Harold Ford Jr. really doing as well as the polls suggest? Is he conceivably on his way to becoming the first black Southern senator since Reconstruction? The answer may well be yes, but Ford can hardly take that for granted. As black candidates reaching out to largely white constituencies have discovered in the past, when it comes to measuring political popularity there are lies, damned lies--and polls, on which they rest their fate at their peril.
The phenomenon was first widely noted in 1982, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost a squeaker of a race for governor after being widely projected as the winner. Douglas Wilder also came up against the "Bradley Effect" when he barely won the 1989 contest for governor of Virginia, after leading comfortably in the polls.
Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland was at Wilder's hotel as a projected easy victory turned into a nail-biter. That is a night "I'll never forget," says Walters, who thinks it "naive" to believe that things have changed very much. He believes that some percentage of whites--perhaps 5 percent or so, intent on being seen as less biased than they may be--will claim to support a nonwhite candidate when they actually do not.
Other political observers think the effect may have diminished over time. "We may be seeing the turning of this," says Ed Sarpolus, vice president of EPIC-MRA, a Michigan-based polling firm.
In the years since Bradley's unexpected loss, a number of blacks have won statewide office. Acceptance of such candidacies has risen as both the electorate and black candidates have changed. "There would not have been a candidate like Harold Ford in the old days," says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Since entering Congress barely into manhood, Ford "has prepared himself for this day and this period," says Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Ford talks the language of rural gun owners and social conservatives and prides himself on being able to relate to the good ole boys. He also may benefit from the fact that 2006 seems to be shaping up as a Democratic year.
In 1983, when Harold Washington became Chicago's first black mayor, "It's our turn" resonated as a slogan throughout Chicago's black communities. Whites engaged in equally divisive rhetoric. That kind of polarization is far less evident now, says Jackson, who is weighing running for mayor of Chicago and favors "It's time for change" as his own mayoral-campaign motto. Asked pointedly whether Ford will fall victim to the Bradley Effect, Jackson replies, "Let's hope this is a different time and we are in a different space than we were maybe 20 years ago."
Ford's entire career has been built on the assumption that we are indeed in a very different place than when Bradley loss his bid to become governor of California. It would be nice, and not only for Ford, if that assumption proves to be true.