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The Bradley Effect and Schrodinger's Cat

In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger proposed taking a cat and putting it into a box. Also into the box he would put a small bit of radioactive substance, not in itself harmful to the cat. Over the course of one hour, the radioactive substance might, or might not, set off a Geiger counter also inside the box that would trigger the release of a poison gas. This would be quite harmful to the cat. Fatal, in fact. But there was an equal chance that nothing would happen and the cat would be fine. What Schrodinger hoped to demonstrate, besides his dislike of cats, is that in conjunction with his theory of quantum mechanics, until the box was opened and the cat’s well-being determined, the cat actually existed in two states – alive and dead – simultaneously, depending on whether or not the radioactive lump set off the poison trap. Once one observed the cat inside the box, one of the quantum possibilities collapses and you are left with either a perfectly healthy, if somewhat confused kitty, or a short digging job in the backyard.

In 1982, longtime Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley ran as the Democratic candidate for governor of California. Given the Golden State’s reliable Democratic leanings and Bradley’s significant poll lead going into the election, he was expected to win. Even the San Francisco Chronicle ran the post-election day paper with the headline “Bradley Win Projected.” But Tom Bradley was a black man, and it seemed that when a non-trivial number of white voters who had previously averred their support for him got into the security of the voting booth, they pulled the lever for Bradley’s white Republican opponent. They’d tell their friends they were color-blind and Bradley’s race didn’t matter and they just wanted to elect the most qualified person for the job, but when push came to shove, they just couldn’t do it ‘cause, well, he’s black. Ever since, when a black politician runs for office against a white man, this scenario, dubbed “the Bradley Effect,” gets endlessly chatted about as pundits try to determine just how much a factor race plays in an election and how long can they maintain a sense of artificial drama by discussing it.

In 2008, America is set to embark on its own variation on the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment. Barack Obama enjoys a lead over John McCain outside the margin of poll error both nationally and in a number of swing states. Obama has more white support than any Democrat in over thirty years [www.politico.com]. But what if it’s all a mirage? What if decades of seeing blacks as nothing but pimps, drug-dealers and foul-mouthed rappers on TV causes enough white Democrats and independents to get cold feet in the voting booth? The McCain campaign is counting on its months-long efforts to highlight Obama’s “otherness” to cause enough nominal Obama supporters to balk at voting for him next Tuesday. Will it happen? No one knows. We’re in uncharted territory with the nation’s first black presidential candidate with a real shot of winning the White House. Some are cynical about how far this country has progressed in terms of racial equality and are all too aware of Democrats’ ability to disappoint on Election Day. Others argue the Bradley Effect has already sorted itself out and the white people who say they’ll vote for Obama will actually vote for him. Still others say the Bradley Effect won’t matter, that expected historic turnouts of African-American and young, first-time voters will more than make up for it.

Right now, this very second, Barack Obama is simultaneously winning the election and losing it. Both quantum possibilities exist for the next five days. On Tuesday, America will open the box and see if the poison of racial distrust was released or if an Obama presidency is alive and well and looking for a nice bowl of milk and a scratching post.

– Michael Turner