At this juncture, I wouldn't want to bet even a subprime mortgage on this presidential election. As perhaps never before, multiple hidden factors could alter the outcome.
Judging by polls, it would seem that Sen. Barack Obama will be our next president. But polls only reflect what people say they think, not what they really think. Which is to say, we have both an election and a shadow election in progress. The latter, in which unconscious motivations come into play and buried prejudices surface in the privacy of one's voting space, is the one that counts - and that can't be quantified in advance.
The 2008 election may prove to be history's highest-stakes game of liar's dice.
Among the hidden factors is the so-called Bradley effect, meaning that whites lie to pollsters about their support for a black candidate. It is cited as the reason Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost in the 1982 California governor's race despite polls showing him up to seven points ahead.
But equally significant this time may become known as the reverse Bradley effect: whites who would never admit to voting for a black man, but do. And expanding the definition somewhat, Republicans and conservatives who would never admit to voting for a Democrat, especially one so liberal.
Whether these dynamics are in balance won't be known for a while - or perhaps ever. That's because the crux of the reverse syndrome is a code of omerta. No one talks.
While some have minimized the impact of a Bradley effect in this election, we'd be wrong to discount it. Anti-black has morphed to some degree into anti-foreigner and anti-Muslim. "Palling around with terrorists," as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said of Mr. Obama, gets to an underlying xenophobic, anti-Muslim sentiment. Using surrogates who strategically use Mr. Obama's middle name, Hussein, feeds the same dark heart.
This tactic, denied but undeniable, has been effective with target audiences.
To Sen. John McCain's credit, he has tried to correct his audience - when, for example, a woman said she couldn't trust Mr. Obama because he's an Arab. Gosh, wonder where she ever got that idea? But the McCain-Palin bad cop-good cop routine is what it is. The hot babe lathers the crowd; the noble soldier hoses them down. This isn't a campaign; it's a sideshow.
Sitting quietly at their desks are an unknown number of discreet conservatives who surprise themselves as they mull their options. Appalled by Mr. McCain's erratic behavior, both in dealing with the financial crisis and his selection of an unsuitable running mate, they will quietly (and with considerable trepidation) vote for Mr. Obama.
Are they are worried about higher taxes, a premature withdrawal from Iraq and Mr. Obama's inexperience in matters executive? You betcha. But they do not want to vote for a divisive, anti-intellectual ticket headed by a man who, though they admire him, lately has made them embarrassed to be Republicans.
Should Mr. Obama win, it will be in part because some number of quiet, mostly white-collar men and women who speak Republican in public voted Democratic in private.
Whatever the final tally, Mr. Obama should not interpret his victory as a mandate. Many of the reverse Bradley votes won't be cast for Mr. Obama, but against a campaign turned ugly. They also will have been delivered with solemn prayers that Mr. Obama will govern as the centrist, pragmatic leader he is capable of being.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.