Sex and Race: Are Black Candidates More Likely to be Disadvantaged by Sex Scandals?
Political science research continues to focus on the question of how racial cues may affect voter choice. Though research findings have been mixed, some studies have furnished strong evidence that race remains a significant factor in American elections.
A 2010 study from the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and MIT published in Political Behavior, “Sex and Race: Are Black Candidates More Likely to be Disadvantaged by Sex Scandals?” conducted two studies to test the responses of approximately 500 white subjects to hypothetical sex scandals involving 2008 presidential candidates John Edwards (prior to the public exposure of his actual sex scandal) and Barack Obama.
The researchers first established the respondents’ underlying racial predispositions; they then followed up four weeks later with specific experimental questions involving fictitious news stories detailing allegations of infidelity. The articles in the two studies employed varying degrees of implicit and explicit racial sentiment and language, and swapped in doctored photos of Edwards and Obama with young women. (The studies also tested the degree of interest in politics for respondents as another significant variable.) Respondents were asked to evaluate the ideology of each candidate and to render their overall judgment of him.
The study’s findings include:
- The way respondents judged the black and white candidate’s ideological extremism was affected in different ways by the scandal: “The more racially resentful respondents are the ones most receptive to the scandal cue, and they judge Obama to be more liberal as a result of exposure to it.” Indeed, a “much larger proportion of interested, resentful whites view Obama as liberal when exposed to the scandal (83%) than when in the control condition (54%)—a difference of 29%. In contrast, the equivalent effect for Edwards is only 15%.”
- In terms of overall candidate evaluations, the effect of the scandal and the racial cue on the entire survey sample was “ only 2 percentage points and not statistically significant, but it is larger among respondents who pay at least minimal attention to politics: The effect of the Obama treatment is larger than the corresponding effect of the Edwards treatment by 7 percentage points.… These results provide support for our hypothesis that black candidates may suffer disproportionately for involvement in sexual scandals.”
- In the second study, where the news story used explicit racial language in the article, the effects of race were actually diminished compared to the effects demonstrated in the first study: “In essence, the explicit message neutralizes the racial aspect of the scandal. These results confirm our expectations about the power of somewhat subtle, rather than highly overt, racial cues.”
The study’s authors conclude: “A negative story involving rumors of a sexual infidelity scandal hurts Obama more than it hurts Edwards in both a direct and immediate sense — on his overall favorability rating — as well as indirectly and potentially — through perceptions of his liberal ideology. The results are not limited to a particular partisan or ideological group. In these ways black candidates do seem to suffer a racial disadvantage with white voters.”
Tags: race, African-American
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Political Behavior study "Sex and Race: Are Black Candidates More Likely to be Disadvantaged by Sex Scandals?"
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related CNN column "Are Cain Allegations Dirty Politics?"
- What significant issues do the study and column raise that journalists need to watch out for when reporting on issues of race in American politics?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.