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Race, the Economy, and the 2008 Election

- January 8, 2009

Over at Pollster, and very much apropos of the post Andy links to below, Mark Blumenthal links to this piece by Marc Ambinder, which talks about the Obama campaign’s strategy to deal with his race.

The thrust of Ambinder’s piece is that once Obama’s team realized he had captured the black vote, they were free to appeal to white voters. In particular, they could appeal even to those white voters who demonstrated a degree of racial aversion by trying to capitalize on their economic situation:

bq. These voters were susceptible to a form of cross-pressure, which [Obama pollster Cornell] Belcher identified as a dissonance between their gut beliefs and their material circumstances. “Three, four weeks out, part of what was driving that swing electorate to be swing was this cross-pressure,” he said. “If you look at their issues, they should be for Barack Obama; if you look at their racial-aversion scores, they should be for John McCain.”

(Sidenote: On the role of cross-pressures more generally, see this earlier post on the recent book by Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields.)

Belcher always saw the potential for race to matter:

bq. In the fall, when some Obama advisers began predicting a landslide, Belcher would have none of it. “No one with any real post-civil-rights understanding of our national political contours could with a straight face predicate a Democratic national landslide,” he told me in September.

Mark Blumenthal contrasts this perspective with that of political scientists:

bq. It’s worth contrasting that statement with the post-election assessments of many political scientists. They found Obama’s ultimate margin “not surprising” since it roughly matched what statistical models based mostly on “fundamental factors” (such as perceptions of the economy and the Bush administration) had predicted (for more details, see comments by Larry Bartels in the Brookings post-election roundtable or the concise summary, with ample links, by John Sides).

I don’t think Mark is correct here. Neither the fundamentals nor the existence of racial prejudice should have led a sensible analyst to predict a landslide. Most political scientists certainly didn’t. I railed against the perception that this race should have been a landslide here. I wrote, “This year is not supposed to be a Democratic landslide.”

Moreover, that the outcome matched the fundamentals certainly does not mean that race didn’t matter or that Obama’s or McCain’s campaign strategy didn’t matter. I made that point — “Of course, this is not to say that the campaign didn’t matter. ” — here as well.

Mark also writes:

bq. I can’t help but thinking that if the election had turned out differently, we might have heard a chorus of “I told you so’s” from a different set of political scientists reminding us of the lessons of 30 or 40 years of academic opinion research on how racial attitudes shape political preferences. It didn’t happen that way, and Ambinder’s piece helps explain why.

I doubt that Mark necessarily intends this, but this sounds a little like “political scientists will think they’re right no matter what happens.” I don’t think that’s quite fair. I chose to emphasize the fundamentals early on because few journalists or commentators do. But neither I nor most other political scientists thinks that means race was irrelevant. Indeed, Andy links to this piece by political scientists Steven Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart, who argue that race may have helped Obama more than it hurt. Lynn Vavreck’s findings support this contention. See also this early post by Charles Franklin for a preview of the kind of analysis of racial attitudes that’s necessary now that the election is over. I discussed this here.

Ultimately, Andy has it right:

bq. The election outcome is multidimensional.

Most likely, the economy and race both mattered. Andy sees the economy as more important. I’m inclined to agree, but ultimately time, and more evidence, will tell. An unfortunate aspect of politics is that history gets written rather quickly, regardless of how accurate that history is. So we’ll continue to discuss this election for some time to come, as new evidence and analysis becomes available.