Arlen Specter hopes for the Bradley effect

The true story of my weird encounter with the Republican senator's office and his odd remarks on race.

By Rebecca Traister

Published November 4, 2008 10:00PM (EST)

In today's pre-Election News of the Mind-Bogglingly Weird, on Monday I received an e-mail from Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's press secretary, in response to my weekend story about her boss appearing at a John McCain rally in Perkasie, Pa. In that story, I quoted Specter's rally remarks, in which he reassured the thousands of Republicans gathered to cheer McCain that there's still hope for a Republican victory in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, thanks to a "couple of hidden factors" in the race, the first of which is "that people answer pollsters one way but, in the secrecy of the ballot booth, vote the other way." In my piece, I described Specter as "crossing his fingers and hoping for racism."

In her note, Specter's press secretary acknowledged that description, and explained that she was including a transcript of the senator's subsequent appearance on CNN's "Late Edition Sunday," "where he amplifies these comments."

Um, OK.

In the attached portion of the transcript, Specter does indeed amplify the comments he made in Perkasie, telling Wolf Blitzer that "there are two imponderables" in the Pennsylvania polling. "One is how many people polling one way will vote differently within the secrecy of the ballot booth," and the other is "the enthusiasm of the base for Governor Palin."

Blitzer responds by asking, "Are you saying, let's just be blunt about this, Senator Specter, [that] there is what they call a Bradley effect potentially under way in your state whereby people go in and say they're going to vote for Obama but in the privacy of the voting booth, they won't vote for a black man?"

Specter answers, "Well, I don't like the Bradley effect categorization and I don't like the suggestion of racism. People are just different on polling and voting. We had a man, Frank Rizzo, who was the mayor here [in Philadelphia]. There was no racial question. He polled a lot better than he voted and I think that could happen this time without respect to race."

OK. Several things.

First of all, I have no doubt that Specter doesn't like the suggestion of racism, but it is hard to pretend as though it's not there, lurking quite visibly under the surface of his remarks about the "hidden factors" that could lead to a Republican upset in Pennsylvania. Also, he wasn't telling the big and raucous crowd in Perkasie that he didn't like the suggestion of racism. He was just telling them that they had reason to dream of an Election Day result different from the polling predictions, and that that reason involved a discrepancy between how people say they're going to vote and how they actually vote, a discrepancy that historically has been linked to the kinds of discomfort people feel when they go into "the privacy of the voting booth" and face the decision of whether to vote for a black candidate.

Second, and this is a valuable tip for any politician: When trying to distance oneself from suggestions of racism, it is rarely -- actually, never -- a good idea to mention Frank Rizzo as part of your defense.

Rizzo's reputation in Philadelphia (and beyond!) is built largely on memories of his tenure as a Philadelphia police officer, during which he was charged, on more than one occasion, with beating suspects with a blackjack (charges were dismissed), and then, as police commissioner, personally led raids of gay clubs and coffee shops. In 1970, officers working under a Rizzo administration raided the headquarters of the Black Panthers, lining them up against an outside wall and forcing them to strip naked while news cameras clicked away. As mayor, Rizzo was frequently accused of making life difficult (to intolerable) for his city's black residents.

Even more perplexing than the thematic inconsistency of citing Rizzo is the specificity of Specter's argument. Rizzo is certainly tied to historical examples of polling-voting inconsistencies, but in ways that run absolutely counter to Specter's assertion that "there was no racial question." There was always a racial question when it came to Frank Rizzo. In the mayoral election of 1987, for which Rizzo switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican to run against incumbent African-American Mayor Wilson Goode, Goode was predicted to defeat Rizzo by a larger margin than he eventually did. So it wasn't, as Specter appears to be telling Blitzer, that Rizzo "polled a lot better than he voted," but that his opponent did. Moreover, the fantasy that this happened "without respect to race" does not take into account what yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 years later, was still calling "the Rizzo effect," whereby "many voters apparently hadn't told pollsters they were backing Rizzo for fear of appearing racist."

So I'm not sure how the Blitzer conversation sheds new light on how Specter wasn't talking about racism, but thanks for the amplification!

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Arlen Specter D-pa.