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Commentary: America is ready for the Obama Effect

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  • Donna Brazile: Obama's lead in the polls isn't a sure thing
  • Brazile: Election is a referendum on America's future and 21st century destiny
  • America wasn't ready in 1980s for a black or female presidential candidate, she says
  • Brazile: In 2008, Americans may be ready to back a new kind of candidate
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By Donna Brazile
CNN Contributor
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Editor's Note: Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, serves as a political contributor for CNN. She also serves as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and founder of Brazile & Associates, a Washington-based political consulting firm. Brazile, who served as the campaign manager for the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket in 2000, wrote "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics," a memoir about her life in politics.

Donna Brazile says the country is poised to elect a nontraditional candidate -- Barack Obama.

Donna Brazile says the country is poised to elect a nontraditional candidate -- Barack Obama.

(CNN) -- After two years of talking about the 2008 presidential campaign ad nauseam, I still get one question repeatedly: Is America ready yet?

My firm answer after being on the road nonstop and witnessing the crowds of ordinary people standing together for a cause greater than themselves is that the country is poised to write a new American chapter.

All the polls say Sen. Barack Obama is leading and that his rival Sen. John McCain should be very, very worried. From mid-single digits to low double-digits, some pollsters and pundits seem to believe that Obama has got this election in the bag.

But anyone who's been in this game for more than a round or two knows not to pop the bubbly too early. Who knows what can happen in the final weeks, days and hours of a presidential election? October has earned its reputation for surprises.

Usually it takes an event -- an illegitimate child or the rumor of one, a past DUI conviction or a current mistress, a closet drug addiction or some other skeleton rattling its bones -- to reverse the fortunes of a front-running candidate.

In the case of Sen. Obama, some think there will be no October surprise. Instead the surprise will occur in November: trusting voters to cast a private vote in the affirmative for Barack Obama.

From the beginning of this electoral season, pollsters and pundits alike have warned that Obama needs a six- to nine-point lead to overcome the so-called "Bradley Effect," which is nothing more than a sanitary way of saying people are hung up about race.

The effect is named after Tom Bradley, the 1982 California gubernatorial candidate who led in the polls right up until the votes were counted.

While willing to tell pollsters they would vote for a minority candidate, the theory goes, some California voters just couldn't stomach casting a ballot for a black man once the curtain was drawn and nobody was looking.

But what if the Bradley Effect were mere folklore? What if it proved to be less like the immutable laws of physics and more like an electoral version of the Loch Ness monster or, even more fantastical, Gov. Sarah Palin's foreign policy expertise as a result of her proximity to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's flight path?

Lance Tarrance, who was Bradley opponent George Deukmejian's lead pollster in 1982, wrote an article recently stating that the disparity between polling and electoral results in that campaign was as the result of bad polling, not racism. He posits that Bradley was always within the statistical margin of error and that his loss reflected nothing more than the inherent weaknesses of polling data in a close election.

Even if there were a Bradley Effect in effect in 1982, there is no evidence that it still exists today. Think of it: The 1980s were a time of recession, high gas prices and questionable fashion sense. Oh wait, perhaps those are bad examples of how much the country has changed in the ensuing quarter-century.

There are, however, a multitude of examples to prove just how far we've come in the past 26 years. The first and most visible: Barack Obama. Cornell students agree that Obama won final debate

There was no way either major party would have nominated a black man for president of the United States in the 1980s. The Rev. Jesse Jackson's historic campaign was as close as we came, and it was symbolic at best.

The greater symbolism was in the choice of Geraldine Ferraro as the first female vice presidential pick in a time when no one would have ever seriously considered a woman leading the ticket. On second thought, maybe citing a newsmaking female veep candidate is a bad choice to highlight the differences between then and now.

Yet no one can argue that huge strides haven't been made since the 1980s. If Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton had run for president the same year Tom Bradley ran for governor, neither would have advanced beyond the Iowa caucuses. The country simply wasn't ready. It is now.

Yes, racism still exists in America. Its disgusting and insidious presence is evidenced every time some rabid partisan screams "Kill him!" or "Terrorist!" when Obama's name is mentioned at McCain-Palin rallies.

There is a contingent of folks in this country who will never, under any circumstances, vote a black man, or for that matter a woman, into office. Thankfully, those hateful, intolerant few are not the ones who will decide this election.

It is those in the middle, the ever-elusive swing voters, who will determine the next four years of our collective future. I may be jaded after too many years in this bloodsport we call "politics," but I am not so jaded as to believe the worst of the American people.

I believe the vast majority of Americans view this election for what it is: a referendum on the future of our nation, not a popularity contest to be decided on race or gender or age. Far more disturbing than the possibility of the Bradley Effect altering the results of this election is the possibility that it will be used to create a cultural and racial backlash in explaining otherwise inexplicable voting irregularities or horrible polling samples.

American voters have come a long way since Tom Bradley's race for governor. Many of them understand the implications of this election. This election is about tomorrow -- our nation's destiny in the 21st century and not about all the old battles and ugly wounds of yesterday.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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