Click the audio icon to listen to Lou Cannon's speech.
HONOLULU (Oct. 24) —The historic presidential contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain will hang less on unacknowledged racism than many people believe, according to veteran journalist Lou Cannon.
But the race has been impacted by the failure of the American press to adequately explain the stakes at hand, Cannon argued in a speech here this week.
Speaking at this year's George Chaplin Fellowship in Distinguished Journalism lecture at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Cannon argued that racism – while still real in the United States – has already been largely factored into the polls and public opinion surveys that attempt to understand the American voter.
The real problem, the former Washington Post reporter and Ronald Reagan biographer said, is that the news media have failed to give voters a clear understanding of the economic and foreign policy issues in play. This is, he argued, largely a product of the commercial pressures that force news organizations to spend less and apply fewer resources at a time when the demand for accurate and informed "facts" has never been greater.
Based on his reading of the polls and the state of the national electorate, Cannon said this election is Obama's to lose. Conventional wisdom, he noted, argues that an unpopular sitting Republican President and a dismal economic climate would naturally favor the Democratic challenger.
But conventional wisdom also argues that Obama must contend with hidden racism that does not show up in most public opinion polls. That "wisdom" must be challenged, Cannon said.
He used as his example the often-cited "Bradley Effect," in which analysts try to explain why the popular African American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, ended up losing the 1982 contest for governor of California against Republican George Deukmejian. The assumption is that people respond to polls by saying they will vote for a black candidate when in fact they will not, Cannon said.
However, a closer analysis suggests that Bradley was not done in by secret racism, but by other factors, Cannon argued. This, he said, is not mere speculation but a conclusion based on his years of covering California politics and the polling and aftermath of that particular election.
"The Bradley Effect means to its believers that there are a significant number of voters who will lie to pollsters and say they are willing to vote for an African American but do otherwise in the secrecy of the ballot box," Cannon said.
"But, under close examination, the Bradley Effect is a myth originally circulated by Bradley and a California pollster who stopped polling early and missed what was happening on the election."
Among those factors, Cannon said, was a gun registration initiative that drove many rural voters -- who might otherwise have opted out -- to the polls on Election Day.
Cannon underlined that he was not arguing there was no racism in the electorate in California in 1982, but only that it was largely already factored into the polls of "likely" voters.
"Voters told the pollsters what they intended to do," Cannon said.
A recent Stanford University study that argued Obama's true turnout would be something like 6 percent less than what the polls predict was based on "dubious methodology," Cannon argued.
In truth, he said, out of 32 primaries studied, 17 turned out to be within what the polls projected, within the margin of error. In three states, Obama did worse that the polls suggested while in 12, he received more votes.
In short, no obvious evidence of the "Bradley Effect."
Still, Cannon argued, the coverage of this year's election and the issues surrounding it must be judged wanting, by any objective standard.
He cited, particularly, the uncritical "cuddly" coverage of Obama, particularly early in the campaign, and the woeful lack of informed coverage of the economic collapse, both before and after. To a large degree, he argued, this is a direct result of staffing and spending cutbacks that have decimated the national and regional news media.
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