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The Tom Bradley Effect

by Legacy Staff

Elected to an unprecedented five terms as mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley remains one of the nation’s greatest racial pioneers 14 years after his death. His legacy has particular resonance today as L.A.’s first Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, modeled his coalition building campaign on that of Bradley’s. On a national level, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign represents a step-level jump for African-American political dreams, much the same way that Bradley’s audacious, long-shot hopes of becoming mayor of a major city with a small Black population did in 1969. And on November 4 when voters cast their ballots, pollsters will be anxiously waiting to see if Obama is impacted by a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Bradley effect.”

Running against Mayor Sam Yorty in 1969, Bradley was challenging a city establishment that made little room for minorities. While other Black mayoral candidates in Detroit, Cleveland, Gary and Newark could count on large Black populations to counter White resistance, Bradley’s Los Angeles was overwhelmingly White, with a Black population of less than 18 percent.

During his campaign, Bradley constructed the most substantial and durable biracial coalition in American urban history, principally between African-Americans and liberal Jews. But as the race grew tighter, Yorty’s campaign devolved into fear mongering and racially charged attacks. “Gutter politics,” Bradley labeled the strategy, but in a city still reeling from the Watts riots, it proved effective. White voters and even a majority of Hispanics were influenced by Yorty’s efforts to paint the moderate city councilman and former policeman as a dangerous radical, even a Black militant. It is worth noting that Obama has weathered similar attacks over his relationships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and former Weather Underground activist William Ayers.


In 1973, Bradley took on Yorty again. With more information about Bradley and a greater sense of familiarity, voters put aside their fears and gave Bradley a solid victory.

During his 20 years in office, Bradley helped turn Los Angeles into a global metropolis with downtown skyscrapers, a multiracial city work force, a more accountable police department and booming trade with the Far East. Bradley was a former track star, so perhaps its not surprising he said his proudest achievement was bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles in 1984. Tall and serious of demeanor, he was a dominating presence at city hall, and the sheer force of his persona plus the strength and unity of his coalition turned a traditionally weak mayor’s office into the center of the action. His 16-hour days were legendary, and his command of the details of city policy known to all. He opened the doors of city hall to L.A.’s diversity, and he drew substantial federal and state aid to a city that had, under Mayor Yorty, disdained any outside funds that would help inner city neighborhoods.

Bradley’s final years in office were shaky. In the late 1980s he faced an investigation of his role in city deposits in a bank on which he served as a director. In 1989 he was nearly forced into a runoff by a generally unknown challenger. In 1992, in the wake of the Rodney King beating, his city exploded in violence with riots even more damaging than those during the 1965 Watts unrest. Shocked and devastated, Bradley struggled to develop an effective response. The following year he chose not to run for a sixth term, and he left office no longer the dominant figure he’d once been. He died five years later.

Since then, certain aspects of his career have emerged as deeply resonant for the new century. Two people in particular, Antonio Villaraigosa and Barack Obama, have in their careers evoked the significance of Tom Bradley.

When a young liberal Democrat named Antonio Villaraigosa tried to become the city’s first Latino mayor in more than a hundred years, he faced many of the same obstacles Bradley had 36 years earlier. Ironically his opponent James K. Hahn ran a harsh but successful campaign reminiscent of Yorty’s 1969 victory, including a TV commercial that linked Villaraigosa to drug dealers. But like Bradley, after whom Villaraigosa consciously modeled himself, the Latino candidate won a rematch four years later building a coalition of Latinos, liberal Whites, and a majority of African-Americans. A documentary film, The New Los Angeles, ties together the Bradley and Villaraigosa mayoralties as milestones in America’s racial politics.

While Villaraigosa’s victory reminded Angelenos of the historic nature of Bradley’s biracial coalition, Obama’s presidential campaign has revived another piece of the Bradley legacy, the so-called Bradley effect. When Bradley ran for governor of California in 1982, he was well ahead in the pre-election polls and on election night, a television network even called him the victor based on exit polls. And yet his Republican opponent prevailed when all of the ballots were counted. Those who analyzed this campaign and others involving Black candidates argued that some White voters had told pollsters that they were undecided or likely to vote for the Black candidate but instead voted for the White candidate.

Obama’s historic presidential primary campaign revived this question, as people wondered whether there was a hidden White vote lying in wait for him. If a race involving a Black candidate has a high number of undecided White voters near election day, the prospects for the Black candidate are less bright than they appear. Many analysts hypothesized that Obama’s surprise loss to Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary was a result of the Bradley effect. In California, the very state that had added the term to our political lexicon, Obama lost by a startling 10 percentage points after one late survey showed him ahead by 13 points.

However, the Obama-Clinton primary has also revealed what some have termed the “reverse Bradley effect,” as Obama received, on average, 3 percentage points more support in the actual primaries than he did in the polls. Many have blamed this discrepancy on the rise of cell phones and the fact that pollsters often don’t contact voters without landlines—voters who tend to skew younger and more liberal. If anything, the ongoing debate over the Bradley effect hypothesis should only remind us that polling remains an inexact science, one seemingly made messier whenever race is a factor.

Whatever happens to Obama on November 4, his campaign is clearly a milestone much the same way Bradley’s election as the first Black mayor of a major city was 35 years ago. Bradley’s legacy has only gained luster in the 10 years since his passing because the questions he wrestled with in his career—about the place and future of the nation’s Black population in the American dream—are enduring ones, and his determination to overcome racial barriers remains one of the nation’s great dramas.

Originally published September 2008

Raphael J. Sonenshein, Ph.D., is a political science professor and author who has taught at Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Los Angeles.

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