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Racially Charged Searches and the Obama Vote

- November 30, 2011

While most studies find little evidence that race mattered a great deal in the 2008 election, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz finds in a working paper that racial animus cost Obama a very large proportion of the national vote. The key difference between his study and others is that he constructs measures of racial attitudes based on google searches on racially charged terms:

Traditional surveys struggle to capture socially unacceptable attitudes such as racial animus. This paper uses Google searches including racially charged language as a proxy for a local area’s racial animus. I use the Google-search proxy, available for roughly 200 media markets in the United States, to reassess the impact of racial attitudes on voting for a black candidate in the United States. I compare an area’s racially charged search volume to its votes for Barack Obama, the 2008 black Democratic presidential candidate, controlling for its votes for John Kerry, the 2004 white Democratic presidential candidate. Other studies using a similar empirical specification and standard state-level survey measures of racial attitudes yield little evidence that racial animus had a major impact in recent U.S. elections. Using the Google-search proxy, I find significant and robust effects in the 2008 presidential election. The estimates imply that racial animus in the United States cost Obama three to five percentage points in the national popular vote in the 2008 election.

It’s a very interesting usage of Google search data (something I am trying myself for an entirely different purpose) and it looks like it has been done in a careful way. I leave it to those more steeped in this literature to see if they find the methods and findings credible. 3-5 percentage points is an awfully large effect, especially given that Obama did not underperform in models based on fundamentals.

h/t Tyler Cowen