If Obama Loses, Blame His Policies, Not Racism

American political tribalism continues to wane.


Just 38 percent of Americans said that they would vote for a black presidential candidate back in 1958, which was the first time the Gallup Poll asked that question. Twenty years before that, only 33 percent said that they would vote for a woman; 46 percent for a Jew, and 60 percent for a Catholic.  By 1958, 54 percent would support a woman candidate, 63 percent a Jewish one, and 67 percent a Catholic. Just two years later, the Catholic Democrat Sen. John F. Kennedy defeated Protestant Republican Vice-President Richard Nixon by just over 100,000 votes, a mere 0.1 percent of the popular vote. A good case can be made that Kennedy didn't even win the popular vote.

In June 2012, the Gallup Poll reported that 96 percent of Americans said that they would vote for a well-qualified black candidate nominated by their party; 95 percent would support a woman; 94 percent a Catholic; and 91 percent a Jewish candidate. In addition, 92 percent would vote for a Hispanic candidate; 68 percent for a gay or lesbian; 58 percent for a Muslim; and for the first time ever a majority (54 percent) of Americans said that they would vote for a well-qualified atheist. One particularly interesting Gallup finding in the context of the current election is that only 80 percent of Americans said that they would vote for a well-qualified Mormon. That is marginally up from 75 percent when the question was first asked in 1967. Less than half a century after America's only Roman Catholic president had been elected, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama walloped his Republican opponent Sen. John McCain by 8.5 million votes and 7 percentage points.

Yet atavistic political tribalism hasn't been completely vanquished. In 1960, nearly 80 percent of Roman Catholics voted for Kennedy even though they had split evenly between Democrat Adlai Stevenson and Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. In 2008, 95 percent of African-American voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama. Nevertheless, the Gallup numbers—and results in elections—clearly demonstrate that ethnic and religious divisions have been fading away as a single American tribe has been forged. As the Gallup Poll notes, "Americans of all political party affiliations are nearly unanimous in saying they would vote for a black, female, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish president." It really is true that an American of any ethnicity can grow up to become president. It seems likely as well that gender and sexual orientation are either already non-factors or well on their way to that destination.

Given the horrific injustices of slavery and Jim Crow, it is no wonder that the role of race in American politics still fascinates and haunts the imaginations of professors, pundits, and pollsters. Yet, as the Gallup data show, even race has become far less salient to most American voters.

Still, in the run up to the 2008 election some pundits worried that opinion poll numbers might be distorted by the "Bradley Effect" and Obama could lose the election to McCain despite holding a commanding lead in voter surveys. The term Bradley Effect was coined back in 1982 when popular black Los Angeles Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley, up 14 points in opinion polls, lost to white Republican George Deukmejian in the actual election. Bradley Effect theorists suggested that some white voters, fearful of being thought racist, lied to pollsters about supporting the black candidate and then voted for the white one. This apparently happened in the case of Douglas Wilder, who was elected the first black governor of a state since Reconstruction in 1989 in Virginia. In the run up to the election Wilder was leading by as much as 10 percent in final polls, but he won the election with 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent, a 7,000-vote margin.

However, the Bradley Effect wasn't present in the 2008 presidential election. The October 2008 Washington Post ABC News poll reported that Obama was pulling 52 percent of the likely voters and he won the election with 52.9 percent. In other words, voters did not markedly lie to pollsters about their electoral preferences. In a 2009 study in The Journal of Politics, Georgetown University political scientist Daniel Hopkins surveyed data from 180 gubernatorial and Senate elections from 1989 to 2006 and found that the Bradley Effect essentially disappeared after the early 1990s. Why did it fade away? Hopkins suggests that it "declined to insignificance swiftly at about the time that welfare reform silenced one critical, racialized issue, and as crime's national salience was declining."

It's good news that voters no longer feel like they have to tell politically correct lies to pollsters about for whom they plan to cast their ballots anymore. But does race still make a difference in American elections? Somewhat. An analysis by the Pew Center for the People and the Press of the 2008 election exit polling found that 7 percent of whites said that race was important to their vote, of whom two-thirds voted for McCain. On the other hand, black voter turnout increased by 2 million over the 2004 election and 95 percent of blacks voted for Obama. It is still the case that no Democratic candidates for president have received a majority of white votes since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, whereas a majority of blacks have voted Democratic since 1936. This ethnic division between the two major parties, established three generations ago, is an electoral remnant of the fight to end state-mandated racial segregation.

Academics find more clear signs of lingering racial resentment. In an intriguing study Harvard economics Ph.D. student Seth Stephens-Davidowitz used Google search data between 2004 and 2007 for racially charged terms, specifically the offensive term nigger(s), in more than 200 media markets to estimate how racial animus affected votes for Obama in 2008. Stephens-Davidowitz then combined the number of votes Kerry received in 2004 with the average gain in votes for 2008 Democratic Congressional candidates to estimate how many votes Obama "should" have received. After making these calculations, his results suggested that "continuing racial animus in the United States cost Obama 3 to 5 percentage points of the national popular vote in 2008." Since white Republicans were going to vote Republican anyway, what Stephens-Davidowitz' calculations reveal is that "between 6.7 and 10.7 percent of white Democrats did not support Obama because he was black."

Last month, Hunter College political scientist Charles Tien and his colleagues published an article in Politics and Political Science that analyzes survey data to probe for racial prejudice among voters. They too note that Obama's 2008 vote totals were lower than might have been expected given the Democrats' Congressional landslide victory. They conclude "that on balance [Obama] lost about five percentage points in popular vote share due to intolerance for his race on the part of some voters." In the current election, their data suggests that Obama's "racial cost" has fallen to three percentage points. In other words, they find that racial bias, while still present, continues to fade from American politics.

Last week, the Associated Press reported the results of its quadrennial racial attitudes survey. The AP results consist of explicit polling data and the outcomes of tests that aim to measure implicit racial bias without mentioning the topic directly. The implicit attitude tests seek to uncover unconscious bias by, among other things, having test takers match black and white faces with good and bad terms. Some 70 percent of white test takers score as being prejudiced against blacks. (Go here to take the test. For what it's worth, my results suggested "a slight implicit preference for black people compared to white people.") The AP reports that according to its polling data, racial prejudice among whites has increased slightly from 48 percent in 2008 to 51 percent today. The implicit racial attitudes tests find that anti-black attitudes increased to 56 percent from 49 percent in 2008.

A week before the presidential election, the latest Washington Post ABC News tracking poll has former Gov. Mitt Romney leading President Barack Obama by a single point, 49 to 48 percent. An earlier version of that same poll found that Obama has lost support among white voters compared to his first run in 2008. In 2008, Obama won with 52.9 percent of the vote by garnering 43 percent of the white vote and 80 percent of the non-white vote. The new poll reports that his support among white voters has dropped 6 points, to 37 percent.

So if Obama loses next Tuesday, will it be because of his race? The answer is no. American political tribalism continues to wane and Obama's "racial cost" has only fallen since the 2008 election. It's true that in a contest this close, the small and dwindling portion of Americans motivated by ethnic or racial tribalism might well make a difference in the outcome. But it would be wrong to interpret the outcome as a return to the political tribalism of the past. If Obama loses it will be overwhelmingly because the majority of voters disliked his policies, not his race.