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As I write this a month before the 2008 election for the next American president, Barack Obama is leading in the opinion polls over John McCain by 11 percentage points. So at the rate things are going Obama should crush McCain.

But wait, not so fast!

In 1982 Tom Bradley ran for governor of California. He was leading in the polls and even on election day the exit polls showed that he would win. But he lost.

Tom Bradley was black. As it turns out, when a black man runs against a white man in America, between 5% to 15% of white voters will lie when answering opinion polls and even exit polls. Maybe because they do not want to seem racist.

This is called the Bradley Effect. It affects not just blacks, but women too.

So will the Bradley Effect affect Obama, a black man running against John McCain, a white man? Well, it did in some of the Democratic primaries earlier in the year when he ran against Hillary Clinton, a white woman. You saw it in some of the states, but not all of them: mainly those that were less than 8% black. In other states stronger-than-expected black support was able to match or overcome the Bradley Effect.

The country as a whole is 13% black, so while Obama might not win by 11 points, he would still win. But in the primaries he was running against a white woman. Against McCain, a white man, the Bradley Effect should be worse.

The Bradley Effect only concerns whites who lie when answering polls. Some whites, of course, are plain about not voting for Obama just because he is black.

What the primaries told us:

Obama did well among those whites who are under 45 and have a university degree; he did poorly among whites who are old enough to remember Jim Crow.

Going state by state:

  • Obama won the 10 blackest states and 15 of the 20 whitest states.
  • Clinton won 16 of the 21 states in between – those that are between 4% and 19% black.

Going county by county:

  • Obama won the black belt of counties that stretches from Maryland to east Texas by way of Atlanta and goes up the Mississippi as far as Memphis.
  • Clinton won the redneck belt that runs just north of that from Arkansas to Pennsylvania by way of Kentucky. Black T-shirt country. The very places where people are most likely to Google the n-word.
  • Clinton did well in the Hispanic belt from south Texas to California.
  • Obama did well in the Yankee belt that runs from New England to Washington state by way of Minnesota. It is whiter than the redneck belt, but in general it is richer and more liberal.

In the closing days of the primary race, Hillary Clinton appealed to the white racist vote more and more nakedly. Now McCain and his supporters are starting to do that by drawing attention to Obama’s middle name (Hussein) and William Ayers, trying to make Obama seem different and dangerous.

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