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More on Race and Voting

- June 24, 2008

The recent Washington Post poll I mentioned earlier raises some interesting questions about the role of racial attitudes in an Obama-McCain election. The Post’s description of the poll results suggests that for whites, racial attitudes have an independent impact on vote choice, even when controlling for party identification. John presented some recent findings suggesting that whites’ racial attitudes, at least in recent elections, aren’t particularly influential.

In order to shed a bit more light on this issue, I looked around for recent polling data that included questions on racial attitudes in addition to the usual horse race questions. Fortunately, the Roper Center has a Newsweek poll from April that includes some of these questions. In particular, it asks respondents the following:

If Barack Obama were to become president, do you think his administration’s policies would favor African-Americans and other minorities, would favor whites, or would NOT favor any group in particular?

This question gets at the most common and most critical stereotype facing black candidates, that they are defined by their race, that they are motivated to advance black interests over those of whites in a zero-sum racial spoils system, and that they are thus unable to represent the interests of whites. Such stereotypes have been common to white racist concerns about black political power since Reconstruction and are far more prevalent than stereotypes about black intellectual or moral inferiority. Overall, about 20 percent of respondents and 22 percent of whites thought that a President Obama would favor African-Americans. In contrast, only about 4 percent of African-Americans thought so.

To see the possible impact of such attitudes, I ran a model to predict respondents’ preference for Obama over McCain in a hypothetical election contest. In addition to the variable mentioned above, I also included the usual controls for age, sex, education, religion, economic class, and partisanship. Furthermore, I included three variables about Obama that might reflect some plausibly non-racial reasons for voting against him. The first is whether or not respondents believe he has the experience to be President; the second is whether or not they think he’s an elitist; and the third is whether they know that Obama is a Christian. (Each of these variables—especially the question about Obama’s religion, may, of course, touch upon issues of race and prejudice, but not as obviously as the question about Obama’s favoritism to African Americans.) Finally, since the poll was conducted before Obama wrapped up the nomination, I included a variable for Hillary Clinton supporters in order to control for what might be enthusiasm for her rather than antipathy toward Obama.

The results of this model (see graph below) indicate that even when controlling for these other factors, attitudes about whether Obama would favor African Americans have a statistically significant impact (p<0.005) on vote choice. The model indicates believing that Obama would favor African Americans drops his support among whites by 20 points (50 percent to 30 percent). The impact of this variable is critical to the election outcome: the overall model predicts McCain beating Obama 54-46, but among those who think Obama would treat all races fairly, he ties McCain 50-50.

(Symbols indicate the probit coefficients for each variable listed. The the length of the bars represent the 95% confidence interval.)

Of course, all of the usual caveats apply here, most notably that this is just one measure of racial attitudes and the poll is two months old. Now that Obama is now the presumed Democratic nominee, perhaps he has been able to lessen the extent and impact of white racist attitudes. Still, my guess is that, ceteris paribus, Obama’s race is probably costing him about 4 to 5 points in the polls.