Four Years After Obama, Racial Attitudes Still Predict Votes

Friday, May 25, 2012

President Barack Obama (Steve Jurvetson/flickr)

Democrats in the Mountain South registered their disapproval with President Barack Obama in primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, where he failed to get approval from more than two-thirds of voters.

In Kentucky, “uncommitted” got more than 40 percent of the vote, and in West Virginia, a federal prison inmate claimed the votes of four in 10 Democratic primary voters.

These voters, of course, have never been a strong spot for Obama. The subtext, both in 2012 and in 2008, has been that race has played a major factor in these predominately white rural counties.

Most of the time it’s implied, but sometimes it punches through, like in these voter interviews I did in West Virginia in 2008.

Since the 2008 election, political scientists have been working to measure how much race is a driving factor when voters go to the polls.

But as Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post wrote this week, isolating the variable of just how much Obama’s race is the driver here is a dicey proposition.

“Figuring out how much of the anti-Obama votes in these southern and Appalachian state primaries is directly attributable to racism,” he concluded, “simply can’t be done.”

The proper ways to measure this are still fiercely debated, and there isn’t great data that drills down to particular states.

Some, though, are now saying with confidence that yes, racial attitudes have been a clear driver in moving white voters to the Republican side.

“Polarization of the electorate by racial attitudes was by far the highest in 2008 that we have on record,” said Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler, going back to when data collection started in 1988.

These measurements put voters on a spectrum of racial attitudes based on their beliefs about whether racial disparity in this country is based on institutional discrimination or individual characteristics like work ethic.

Then, the models control for ideology and political party to determine how much these attitudes correlate to candidate choice.

There are limits to these findings when it comes to making precise regional conclusions.

“The south has typically used racial conservatism in their vote choice more than the non-south,” Tesler said, but “we don’t have enough data to look at individual effects by state.”

And there haven’t just been clear trends when it comes to these broad, largely unspoken racial attitudes.

Tesler is currently researching the electoral impact of what he calls “old fashioned racism.”

To measure this, he is examining the correlation between party identification and opposition to interracial dating among white voters. That applies to a much smaller segment of the population than those who fall on the more conservative side of the racial attitudes spectrum.

About one in five white Americans report opposing or somewhat opposing interracial dating, and since Obama’s election, these voters are more likely to vote Republican for the first time.

“If you are one of these 20 percent who oppose interracial dating, you’re far more likely to be a Republican now,” he said. “It never correlated to party identification from 1987 to 2007, and then in 2009, it jumped up pretty big.”

Three-and-a-half years of governing have not shifted these dynamics. Tesler said the divisions on racial attitudes continue to closely correlate to the polarization around Obama.

“Racial attitudes continue to be a very profound predictor of how the public sees Barack Obama,” he said. “What’s remarkable is how stable the effect of racial resentment is in 2012 to where it was in 2008.”

Still, stability in radicalized opinions about Obama is one thing. Turnout and electoral results are something else entirely.

Tesler said it’s still too early to predict whether these liberal and conservative takes on race in America will be the same drivers to the polls as they were in 2008. 


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Comments [12]


obama was the only black president at the time... plez forgive people for trying to give this only one black person who just happend to be running for president a shot as far as anyone being president now unfortuantly we all knew it was over before we voted anyway..

May. 30 2012 04:50 PM
political pop


May. 28 2012 03:14 PM
George from Ohio

Ohio, Michigan, Northern Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire and may be Miami-Dade county will end up deciding the elections, not the rednecks of the Applachia, Texas or the rest of the southern states. So this article is only of academic interest

May. 28 2012 11:15 AM
Peter from Bronx

It is not surprising that poor Whites would be the most racist of Whites. The lower one's status in society is, the more one suffers from The Hidden Injuries of Class, as Sennett and Cobb illustrate in their classic of that name. Feelings of humiliation, feelings of being seen as less human than others are painful affronts to human dignity. The easiest way to handle that is to find someone to look down on as lesser than you. The KKK had its strongest backing by lower class whites, who had nothing to hold on to other than feeling at least they were more worthwhile than "them." While there certainly is racism throughout White societies, upper and upper middle class Whites have a stronger sense of self worth reflected back to them by society, and thus less need for a scapegoat to angrily dehumanize. If one knew nothing about voting patterns in the U.S., it would still be easy to predict that in places like Kentucky, Tennessee, and the South, where Whites are sliding more and more into poverty (or have never left it), they would be most upset that a Black person could be put into the most superior position in the country.

Of course, one could that we are all more human than otherwise, that all people have a dignity that should be respected regardless of surface characteristics. But, sad to say, that would require a major moral and psychological transformation in the country, perhaps in the human race. We certainly aren't there yet. Will we ever be? Beats me.

May. 27 2012 07:39 PM
Alger Hiss from Wellsville, Pa

The Democratic party made a grave mistake by nominating a Obama for the presidency. Whereas a white southerner such as Johnson, Carter or Clinton could appeal to the white vote, a black man from Hawaii/Illinois does not. It is premature to write off the white vote due to demographic trends. Whites still make up 79% of the electorate, according to Gallup. Obama won in 2008 because the GOP ticket was not credible. This time it will be.

May. 27 2012 05:30 PM

"But as Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post wrote this week, isolating the variable of just how much Obama’s race is the driver here is a dicey proposition."

I can understand that journalists and political scientists have a responsibility to be so precising, but here, they are being precising about something that we all already know -- or at least that people of color know.

Whenever I talk to another person of color about how much of this country's hostility towards President Obama is just plain racist, we always agree. The person I'm talking to could be an African American, a Bengladeshi taxi driver, an American born Asian, etc., and the point is obvious to us. It's as if this point is so obvious, why discuss it?

May. 27 2012 03:36 PM

"political scientists have been working to measure how much race is a driving factor when voters go to the polls".

Can they measure how much political partisanship is a driving factor when journalists cover the news?

After three long years of demagoguery will the final group to be blamed for the President's failure be the Democrats who proudly voted for him 2008 and not in 2012? That group seems to be growing larger by the day and may not like their decision and decency smeared with cynical innuendo.

May. 27 2012 10:46 AM

Ms. Sale,

Does racism affect voting? Yes.

Does it predict voting? That's a whole lot tougher. And that's why your headline seems a bit over the top.

A whole lot of people would be much happier if reporters would stop trying to predict the news and just report what happened and all the facts about the news that they can find by their deadline.

With proper followup reports, more and/or conflicting evidence can be presented for discussion and clarification. Unfortunately, followup reports don't occur, mostly, in Corporate Media.

That, and other actions by the Corporate Media, are a clear and present danger to the US democratic processes.

May. 27 2012 09:23 AM
Southern Man from Deep South

That's right... when your candidate is losing, attack the voters who vote against him. Paint them as radical, racist, uneducated, etc...

Time is growing short for Mr. Obama. Very short.

May. 27 2012 05:24 AM

"post racial", my backlash....

May. 27 2012 04:11 AM

Five trillion spent in three years with no serious budget, record unemployment and severe energy regulations hurting the coal industry would not have anything to to do with these DEMOCRATS issuing a protest vote, would it?

And the response to their legitimate concerns for the future is nothing but vile and scurrilous accusations?
Law abiding Democrat voters protest at the ballot box and are slandered while Occupy engages in criminal disruption and they are praised?

Thanks for telling Democrats and left leaning independents what the media really thinks of them if they dare depart from the party line and hopefully they will remember in November.

May. 26 2012 09:24 PM
jay from longwood,fl

it's amazing that folks in this country can vote, have kids, do all kinds of things, without consequence. you don't need a licesne to have a child, or do many other things, and you can vote without having an education, where you can reason right from wrong. there should be"some" requirenments for being able to exersize these these rights, but there is not,so how in the world can we really get to where we need to be?I was born in the bronx, to hispanic parents, and consider myself american...not hispanic american, nor african american, nor chinese american, or other. lets be real, and get the job done...............

May. 25 2012 06:45 PM

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