Expert Commentary

Sex and race: Are black candidates more likely to be disadvantaged by sex scandals?

2010 study in Political Behavior examines how voters respond to hypothetical sex scandals involving a white and black candidate.

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

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