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'Bradley effect' will tell a lot about America's voters; US ELECTION As the polls open on one of the most eagerly-awaited US presidential elections ever, Welsh academic and US political expert Professor Jon Roper gives his verdict on the race for the White House.

Byline: Jon Roper

ON ELECTION night, all they can do is hope. For the exhausted Democrat and Republican campaign teams, the effort began a year ago in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire.

It gathered momentum as the nomination battle moved south and west. After their party's conventions, it culminated in the final dramas of the election itself. In the hours before dawn tomorrow, the only question remaining will be that asked by Sylvester Stallone in one of his early Rambo films: "Do we get to win this time?"

A Democrat victory seems likely. The incumbent President, George W Bush, is now one of the most unpopular in history. He will leave office with wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq still raging. The continuing global economic crisis can be blamed on the Republican failure to regulate the activities of Wall Street speculators. Voters can also reflect on some high profile examples of administrative incompetence: the chaos that reigned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is just one.

Individual liberties have been sacrificed on the altar of national security. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the practice of "extraordinary rendition" have lost America the moral high ground in its "war on terror".

The White House front door should be wide open for the party that misplaced its keys so controversially eight years ago.

Moreover, John McCain has proved an impetuous and at times irascible candidate. His vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin, may have energised those Republican voters for whom his maverick appeal is limited, but doubts about her competence and abilities have turned independent voters against the McCain ticket. His performance in the presidential debates has been lacklustre. At each twist of the campaign, Barack Obama has kept his cool and profited while his opponent has flailed and failed.

As the fight for the White House enters its final round, however, its outcome still remains uncertain. In the privacy of the polling booth, will voters step across the bridge that now invites them to span the fundamental fault-line of race in American politics? The polls may predict an Obama win. But as he contemplates the magnitude of his potential achievement, one name may feed a gnawing doubt: Tom Bradley.

In 1982, exit polls predicted that Bradley would win the race to become Governor of California by a comfortable margin. He lost. Bradley was black and running against a white opponent. His defeat led to speculation about the so-called "Bradley effect". Voters may claim that a candidate's race does not affect their preference when asked directly by pollsters but when they actually vote it still determines their decision.

Since then other prominent African-American politicians have gone on to see strong support in the polls fail to translate into equivalent shares of the vote.

Two factors may help Obama neutralise and transcend the "Bradley effect". The first is his drive to register more voters in key states, not least among the African-American population. If they think his victory is possible, they will turn up to vote for him in unprecedented numbers. Second, Obama's central message of change is generational as well as political. His appeal to younger and hopefully more colour-blind voters is one which polls can find difficult to measure.

And if Barack Obama does become president of the United States, the seismic shift in attitudes towards race in America that his election victory represents will dramatically illustrate the phrase he borrowed from his controversial one-time spiritual mentor Jeremiah Wright.

It will indeed symbolise "the audacity of hope".

Jon Roper is Professor of American Studies and Deputy Head of the School of Humanities at Swansea University. His latest book, The Complete Illustrated Guide to the American Presidents, will be published after this year's election
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 4, 2008
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