(Warning: Long political post, and I'd welcome someone telling me how to conceal part of it with a "read the rest" tag.)
Jake Tapper at ABC tackles the "why aren't black voters rushing to Obama" issue with some odd factoids in his arsenal.
While a recent ABC News poll indicates that 84 percent of Americans say a candidate being black would not affect their vote, the dirty little secret is what some pollsters and consultants call "the 15 percent lie" — the supposed percentage of whites who tell pollsters they would be willing to vote for a black candidate but in the privacy of the voting booth never actually would.
A prominent African-American leader in South Carolina, who endorsed the presidential race of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., this weekend, broached this subject when announcing his endorsement. Democratic state Sen. Robert Ford told the Associated Press that Obama as the Democratic nominee would "doom" every other Democrat on the ticket because America would never vote for a black presidential candidate.
"Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose because he's black and he's top of the ticket," Ford said in comments he later disowned. "We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything."
First off, let's admit it: Robert Ford doesn't sound very bright. Democrats would lose everything because they had a black candidate leading the ticket? Really? John Kerry's going to lose his re-election race? Brian Schweitzer's going to be an ex-governor of Montana? This is the same guy who said Obama would lose because he couldn't win "47 to 49 percent" of the white vote, when that's more than Bill Clinton ever got. He is a silly man who says things which are incorrect.
But the opinion's getting around because of that "15 percent lie" idea that Tapper cites. This is a figure that might have been a little true 15, 20 years ago, but it's turned into a psuedo-fact. It relies on two races: the 1982 race for California governor and the 1989 race for governor of Virginia, which pitted Democrat Doug Wilder against Republican Marshall Coleman. That race gave us "the Wilder effect," the colloquial name for "black candidates underperforming on election day, thanks to racism." The myth goes that Wilder led Coleman big in polls, but almost lost the race on election day. This isn't what happened; it was a close race in pre-election polling, but Wilder led big in bad exit polls. From the New York Times story on November 8, 1989:
In Virginia, Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. acknowledged making a fundamental error in the way it conducted its Election Day polling. Its workers stopped voters outside polling places and asked them face to face how they had voted, rather than following the more widely accepted practice of having them fill out "secret ballots" and drop them in a box. All the New York polls used this method.
Brad Coker, Mason-Dixon's president, said that in hindsight he thought some voters might have been reluctant to admit to a poll taker that they had not voted for the black candidate, L. Douglas Wilder. The organization's Election Day polls gave a 10-point lead to Mr. Wilder, the Democrat, and at least three television stations reported the figures right after the polls closed and declared Mr. Wilder the winner. Today it appears that Mr. Wilder did defeat J. Marshall Coleman, the Republican, but by only one quarter of a percentage point.
The 1982 California race hasn't been misremembered like this; Democrat Tom Bradley did lead in pre-election polls and then lose to Republican George Deukmejian. But his lead shrunk from double digits to single digits before election day, and he was dragged down by the losing campaign of Jerry Brown, who was trying to trade the governor's office for a Senate seat. You can attribute a few points of Bradley's loss to racism, maybe. But not 15 points.
And those are the historical examples. Once you look for modern examples of black candidates radically underperforming the polls because whites, the "15 percent lie" falls apart. Here are the black candidates who ran for statewide office in 2006.
The only one of those races that veered outside of the margin of error as the black candidate underperformed was Maryland's. I'm not sure why, except that polls overestimated the votes a Green candidate would get. Still, the point is that black candidates performed roughly as well as polls said they would. Voters were not saying they'd vote for a black candidate, then backing off on election day. Unless someone can prove otherwise, it's time to bury the "Wilder effect." It's a junk theory.