Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Punditry grounded in myths

Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria, are seen at his 1983 inaugural ball. The election defeat of his 1982 Democratic rival, Tom Bradley, has been blamed, says Dan Walters, on an imaginary “Bradley effect” in which white voters were supposedly reluctant to admit to pre-election pollsters that they opposed Los Angeles Mayor Bradley, who was black.
Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria, are seen at his 1983 inaugural ball. The election defeat of his 1982 Democratic rival, Tom Bradley, has been blamed, says Dan Walters, on an imaginary “Bradley effect” in which white voters were supposedly reluctant to admit to pre-election pollsters that they opposed Los Angeles Mayor Bradley, who was black.

One of the more entertaining aspects of covering California’s politics is monitoring the clumsy attempts of out-of-state pundits to explain its proclivities.

Once they convince themselves about something, they tend to ignore all evidence that doesn’t fit their theses as they trumpet their revelations to the rest of the world.

One recalls with amusement, for instance, the television talker who opined in 1988 that Michael Dukakis would win California’s presidential electoral votes because he spoke Spanish. He lost by 700,000 votes.

A classic of the genre is the “Bradley effect,” which popped up most recently in 2008 when Barack Obama was bidding to become the first black president.

He could lose, we were repeatedly told, because of what had happened to Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, when he ran for governor in 1982 and narrowly lost to Republican George Deukmejian.

This version came from the Wall Street Journal: “Pollsters look for the Bradley effect, the idea that some white voters are reluctant to say they support a white candidate over a black candidate. The phrase refers to California's 1982 gubernatorial election, when the late Tom Bradley, a black Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, led in exit polls against white Republican George Deukmejian. Mr. Bradley lost the election. The conclusion: Some voters hid their true choice from pollsters.”

The fact is that Bradley, as the polls predicted, won among voters who cast ballots on Election Day, but Deukmejian’s camp had organized a massive mail vote campaign, using new rules written by a Democratic Legislature, that was decisive. Bradley was simply out-hustled and Obama’s win proved the Bradley effect was a myth.

Wall Street Journal writers may be especially prone to mythologizing California politics. A recent article trumpets the canard that the state turned from Republican to Democratic because GOP Gov. Pete Wilson campaigned for a crackdown on illegal immigration in 1994.

The article, by Jason Riley, theorizes that Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric could have the same effect nationally by alienating Latinos.

Trump’s inflammatory words will have whatever effect they have, but using the 1994 California election as a test case is just wrong.

Wilson did anger Latinos, and they certainly vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but one should note that Wilson won a landslide re-election victory that year. And the state’s shift to the Democrats had already begun for reasons that had nothing to do with Wilson.

One major factor was the end of the Cold War, which clobbered Southern California’s aerospace industry, resulting in out-migration from the region of more than a million persons, mostly conservative-voting industry workers and their families. Los Angeles County, with a quarter of the state’s population and an emerging service worker union movement, shifted strongly leftward and tilted the entire state toward Democrats.

Latinos are still a relatively weak voter bloc overall. But their ranks in legislative and congressional seats have swelled, thanks largely to strong population growth and two systemic changes that Wilson, ironically, championed – court-ordered redistricting and legislative term limits – and that created vacant seats.

That’s the real story that Riley ignores.

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