You may have noticed that one of this year’s presidential candidates is African-American. How will that affect the election outcome?
A major new survey
conducted by Knowledge Networks for Stanford, the Associated Press, and Yahoo examined prospective voters’ racial prejudices from several different angles. AP’s Ron Fournier reports that “Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice,” but goes on to add that “in an election without precedent, it’s hard to know if such models take into account all the possible factors at play.”
Back in February some of my starry-eyed liberal friends argued that race would not be an issue, since the people unwilling to vote for an African-American candidate would already be voting Republican anyway. That sounded optimistic to me, so I pulled out the data from the 2004 National Election Study survey and examined the relationship between racial attitudes and voting behavior.
The NES survey asked respondents to rate “blacks” and “whites” on a 100-point “feeling thermometer.” I somewhat arbitrarily decided that people who rated blacks more than 10 points lower than whites on the feeling thermometer—despite the presumed social undesirability of expressing “racist” feelings—would be pretty unlikely to vote for a black presidential candidate. The proportion of Kerry voters for whom that was true: 17%. Uh-oh.
On the other hand, 9% of Bush voters in 2004 rated blacks more than 10 points higher than whites on the NES feeling thermometer. By my logic, those people should be pretty likely to support a black candidate, given the chance. Still, adding together these off-setting effects implied a 3.7% drop in the Democratic presidential vote. That is a huge potential swing in the contemporary electoral context—probably insurmountable except in a year in which the “fundamentals” (the economy, incumbent tenure, presidential approval, organization, and campaign funds) seem to be heavily stacked in favor of the Democrats.
Incidentally, I hear with some regularity that racism will depress Obama’s performance among “downscale white voters.” But the Kerry voters I identified as likely defectors from Obama due to racial antipathy were not particularly “downscale.” They were only slightly poorer and slightly less educated than other Kerry voters. What they were, mostly, is older. One interpretation of that difference is that older people simply feel less constrained about expressing racial antipathy. Another, more hopeful interpretation is that racial antipathy really is less prevalent among younger people. In the latter case, the generation gap in vote intentions evident in recent polls should be attributed not only to the obvious generational contrast between a Reaganesque Republican and a Kennedyesque Democrat, but also to evolving attitudes toward blacks and whites in American society.