Expert Commentary

Obama, racial prejudice, and the 2008 presidential vote

2011 study in PS: Political Science & Politics on the effect of racial attitudes on the final vote tall for Barack Obama in 2008.

A 2011 study by the University of California, Davis, published in PS: Political Science & Politics, “Prejudice Rivals Partisanship and Ideology When Explaining the 2008 Presidential Vote across the States,” estimates the costs of underlying racial attitudes for Barack Obama, the first African-American candidate nominated by a major party, in terms of his final electoral tally. Previous related scholarship, the study’s author notes, has focused on individual-level choices of white voters; this new research focuses specifically on state voting patterns and attempts to model hypothetical outcomes if the factor of race were not present in 2008.

To derive a standard measurement for prejudice, the study uses data from the Pew Research Center Values Study and focuses on the nonblack electorate; it accounts for how ideology and partisanship impact voting by examining state exit polls for 2000, 2004, and 2008. Modeling how these factors operate, the author notes that “for 2004 and 2000, the estimated effects of partisanship (9.8 and 11.7 [percentage points], respectively) nearly match the 2008 estimate (10.4). The same pattern occurs for the estimated effects of ideology (15.3 in 2004 and 15.2 in 2000, compared to 13.1 in 2008). The only noticeable difference across the three models is for racial prejudice.”

The study’s main findings include:

  • There is a “strong relationship” between the state-level nonblack vote for Obama in 2008 and racial attitudes; Obama indeed “received fewer votes in states with higher relative levels of prejudice.”
  • This dynamic is most clearly demonstrated when comparing the “most and the least prejudiced nonblack electorates,” which had a difference of 11.7 percentage points of the vote.
  • Using a variety of statistical simulations, the author estimates that if all states had relatively low levels of prejudice, Obama may have won as many as 14 additional states in the Electoral College count. The models suggest that Obama would conservatively win 70 more electoral votes, winning nine states where he lost narrowly and producing a “landslide” victory of 435 to 103. (Obama’s actual margin of victory over Senator John McCain was 365 to 173.) The candidate’s average gain across all of the simulations was 86 electoral votes.

While some prior studies have not shown such a dramatic impact in terms of prejudice, the author states that the sample sizes used in previous research may not have been sufficient, among other factors. (However, see the 2010 article “Obama’s Missed Landslide: A Racial Cost?”, which also reaches the conclusion that prejudice played a significant role in the vote tally.)

The study also notes that previous research has argued that prejudice may diminish as minority candidates attain office and demonstrate leadership. This could have a positive implication for President Obama’s reelection chances: “For nonblack voters, then, the opportunity to observe Obama behaving in the same manner as other Democratic presidents may have the effect of improving his reelection prospects and the election prospects of other African American candidates.”

Tags: elections, presidency

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