Race in the Race

 Posted by  Larry Bartels

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.


Don't you think there might be a difference between evaluating "Blacks" as a group and choosing a Black candidate out of a pool of two viable candidates? I imagine that many of the racial prejudices that would drive down a respondent's opinion of "Blacks" (perceived lack of work ethic, self-control, etc) cannot be applied to a Black presidential candidate in the same way. Given the unprecedented nature of actually having a Black candidate for President, I am surprised at the low level of discussion of race in this race. While this does not speak to how Americans will vote in a month or so, it could perhaps indicate that race is either less important (or even more taboo) than we thought.

Obama has consistently downplayed race (except at the height of the Reverend Wright flap, when he was virtually forced to address it). For example, he alluded to Martin Luther King in his acceptance speech but did not explicitly name him. I don't think that's because he believes that race is unimportant--just that he believes it is politically disadvantageous for him to call attention to it.

John Geer at Vanderbilt asks: "What would your data on race bias look like if you look only among southern states v. battleground states? My question is might Obama do worse in southern states with high racial bias, yet do better due to high black turnout in some key eastern battleground states. So while he loses votes overall, he loses most of them in states he was going to lose anyways and he gets a boost in some key states. Of course, many of the high bias states also have big % of blacks and it might be offset (SC/MS springs to mind). I am just trying to think more about the impact of race in this election and liked the data you had on your blog."

Good question. The version of the 2004 NES data set I have close at hand doesn't include the state variable; but perhaps someone else will be inspired to check. (It might be useful to pool data from a few recent NES surveys to generate large enough samples to see what might happen in swing states.) And, yes, the effect on turnout is yet another imponderable.

Inclined to agree. But why did Obama perform better than Clinton in hypothetical matchups against Republicans? Does this suggest a gender vote against Hillary, or has voters' reading of Obama's race changed?

I take hypothetical matchups with a very large grain of salt. But it seems quite plausible to me that Clinton would have been a less formidable nominee than Obama. She was a very polarizing figure even as First Lady. How much of that is gender bias I don't know--obviously, many of the same uncertainties that make it very hard to know how Obama's race will matter also make it very hard to know how Clinton's gender would have mattered had she been the nominee.

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The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, http://www.princeton.edu/~csdp/. To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

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