Race and the US Presidential race

By Lorenzo

Conservative philosopher-blogger Keith Burgess-Jackson had already predicted that, if Obama loses the November 2012 election, the Left will say it was because of race. Now some social science has popped up to support precisely such a claim. A study (pdf) has used racially-charged Google searches to estimate how much less Obama’s share of the popular vote was in November  2008 than one would expect based on the performance of other Democratic Party candidates in that election. (A newspaper blog post by the author summarising the research is here.) As predicted, Andrew Sullivan is already citing the data as explaining why Obama’s chances for re-election is poor.

There is something a little odd about the result in the study, given that the only other postwar American Democratic Presidential candidates to get a majority of the popular vote were Carter in 1976 (50.08%) and LBJ in 1964 (61.05%). So Obama’s 52.87% is the second-highest Democratic Presidential result in 16 Presidential elections. Harvard economics doctoral candidate Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s study implies that Obama “should” have got 56-58% of the vote, which would have made been an extraordinary performance. (The study estimates a 4-6 %point loss from racial animus and a 1%point gain from being black, netting out to a 3-5 %point loss in votes.)

How extraordinary? Well, the big winners in US Presidential elections are typically incumbent Presidents. George Bush senior 1988, the incumbent VP for a popular President, did better than Obama (53.37%). But the big postwar winners were: Ronald Reagan 1984 (58.77%); Richard Nixon 1972 (60.67%); LBJ 1964 (61.05%); Eisenhower 1956 (57.37%); and, the only non-incumbent big winner, Eisenhower 1952 (55.18%).  So, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s regression on the results from a single election suggest that Obama should have got the best non-incumbent Party candidate result in the postwar era, even beating out war-hero Eisenhower, who won big after the Democrats had been in office for 5 consecutive Presidential terms (1932-1952) and (like the Republicans in 2008) had the burden of a very unpopular incumbent in the midst of a much bigger war.

Thus, just eye-balling the historical data, we have reasons to be sceptical about the result of Stephens-Davidowitz’s study.

There is also some social science data which suggests the racial factor may not have been nearly so large. Estimating expected Presidential vote (actually, share of two-Party vote) purely on the basis of per capita GDP growth using data from every post-war Presidential election from 1952 onwards suggests that Obama slightly under-performed, but well within historical patterns. (Al Gore under-performed much worse in 2000, for example.) If, however, per capita GDP growth is weighted by the “military casualties effect”, then Obama’s 2008 performance was almost bang on what political scientist Douglas Hibbs’s “Bread and Peace” model predicts. (Al Gore remains the stand out under-performer.)

So, we have a claim, based on regressions for a single election, that Obama “should” have put in the bestperformance by an non-incumbent candidate in the postwar period. (The “Bread and Peace” model only does elections from 1952 onwards, due to data limitations, but Truman, the incumbent, won in 1948.) Or, we have data, based on 15 elections, suggesting that Obama did about what you would expect (in achieving the second-highest share of the popular vote in the postwar period both by a Democratic Presidential candidate and by a Presidential candidate not representing the incumbent Party).

Stephens-Davidowitz’s study of racial animus and the 2008 election reads well and appears to be analytically sound. Though using unemployment as an indicator of economic conditions is not very persuasive, the evidence is unemployment has much less impact on general voting patterns than one might expect.

A notable result in the study is that its measure of racial animus is not correlated significantly with Democratic candidate John Kerry’s share of the 2004 vote which, as author Stephens-Davidowitz points out, is evidence against the view that racial animus is predominantly a Republican phenomenon.

One of the criticisms of my essay on post-modern conservatism was that I did not deal with the race issue. Race struck me as fraught, not particularly relevant to the phenomenon I was examining and an example of a general tendency for conservatives to be agin groups making a bid for equal treatment. Also, despite claims to the contrary, racial animus is not something that sits on just one side of the ideological spectrum.

That African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democrat means that African-Americans effectively have a monopoly political provider–the Democratic Party. It is reasonable to ask how being effectively electoral prisoners of a single political Party has worked out for them. As a corollary of the above, black concerns do not have much of a voice within the Republican Party; both through lack of activists and through not being a targeted voting group. Which has not stopped folk such as Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell being popular among Republican voters. But it does mean, as one commentator has pointed out, that;

The racial diversity among Democrats and the lack of it among Republicans means that the two bases bring differing sets of concerns to the national debate.

Which is very much not the same as saying that racial animus is somehow a specifically Republican problem.

Trying to get hard data on racial animus and its effects is difficult, which makes having an informed debate about it difficult. (The principle of equal protection of the law is much simpler.) Stephens-Davidowitz should be congratulated for his innovative use of Google data; as he says, a data-rich (and timely) analytical tool. Still, his results do seem to be stronger than historical patterns, and other social science research, suggests. Which brings back to the perennial problem about social science research; it is difficult. Both because of the complexities involved and because it is so often so ideologically charged. (As indicated by the principle that if a white voter votes for a white candidate because the candidate is white, that is racism; but if a black voter votes for a black candidate because they are black, that is not.)

If, in November 2012, Obama gets around about what Douglas Hibbs’s “Bread and Peace” equation suggests, then Stephens-Davidowitz’s study will not be vindicated. If, however, Obama gets significantly less, then Stephens-Davidowitz may well be on to something.

Which is a different thing than saying if Obama loses Stephens-Davidowitz’s study will be vindicated. But the difference is likely to be lost in the shouting.

[The post has been corrected for an error in the arithmetic.]

[Now also at Online Opinion.]


  1. conrad
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the article, but it definitely needs to correct for time — there is very good evidence that stereotypes (both race and gender) wear off in a major way and quite quickly once people know who the person is. My bet is that this has happened for all but the most deeply ingrained racists (who probably arn’t going to vote Democrat anyway, or hopefully vote at all), and so there is a slide away from people even thinking about or acting upon this issue (the same is probably true of Gillard’s femaleness, perhaps apart from Catallaxy commentators :). This is a problem with a lot of the literature you see — it’s all done on single impersonal situations, not the reality most people confront each day (i.e., dealing with the same people).

  2. John H.
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    there is very good evidence that stereotypes (both race and gender) wear off in a major way and quite quickly once people know who the person is.

    But racism, almost by definition, prevents getting to know the other. Some material I have read suggests that best way to approach racism is allow exposure to people from different places early in life. That way the claims of racists loose traction because they are contradicted by experience.

  3. conrad
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    “But racism, almost by definition, prevents getting to know the other”

    No that’s not true. I might think that white caucasoids* are dirty, smelly, and have low IQs. However, due to work etc. . I bump into many of the same caucasoids. Because of this, my stereotype for these particular individuals wears off and so I do get to them know anyway. Now I can say “I’m not racist, I have many caucasoid friends”, despite thinking the average one that I haven’t met is a monkey, that they have dirty habits, do a lot of crime, and probably interbreed with their cousins.

    *Feel free to stick in whatever group you please here.

  4. Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] In other words, the more folk are exposed to President Obama, the more he becomes a specific individual and the less a category. Hence, more generally, the advantage of successful incumbency.

    [email protected] Exempting known individuals from the cognitive prison of category is an established phenomenon. It depends a lot on context how it operates.

  5. John H.
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    No that’s not true.

    It is not true for you but it is for many racists. They won’t even contemplate giving the other a fair go. Racism is all about forming the wrong impression about the other before even meeting the other.

  6. Posted June 12, 2012 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Some people are very close-minded. Nevertheless, homo sapiens are highly adept at individuation of others, a set of talents that regularly (though not universally) gets around categorisation.

  7. Posted June 12, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    John H, I tend to believe that both Obama and Gillard have been given a fair go and in both regards seem to be found wanting, predominately because of overspending and a pursuit of a false idol(gentle macchia).

  8. Posted June 12, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Thus, just eye-balling the historical data, we have reasons to be sceptical about the result of Stephens-Davidowitz’s study.

    Of course I don’t mean you, Lorenzo, but I think the reasons to be skeptical are more of the “say it isn’t so” variety on the right.

    When I look at the “bread and peace” graph you link to, whether 2008 is consistent with that or not depends mostly on how you count Iraq on the peace front. If you count Iraq as something that should have been a negative for the Republicans, then it certainly looks as though they did better than they should have in 2008.

    Anyway, isn’t the whole point of Stephens-Davidowitz’s study that it sidesteps claims as to how well Obama should have done in 2008 compared to other candidates over a 60-year series (which always seems to me a breathtaking generalisation anyway) by undertaking a regional analysis of how well Obama did in different regions at the very same election, using the Google search terms as a means of identifying relatively anti-“nigger” [their term in searches] areas.

    Even if Obama wins the next election, it doesn’t mean that the same analysis could not be done again or wouldn’t hold true.

  9. Hasbeen
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    To my mind the US elected Obama on a wave of self congratulatory anti racism. He was elected because he was black. Perhaps it was that dark skin that prevented many seeing through him, & his facade.

    I’m sure many who voted for him are very sorry now. This is usually the case after folk have been caught by an orator, with a slick line.

    Of course he had the advantage that the party had painted themselves into a corner where they ran Obama, or that awful woman. I doubt she could have been worse.

    He was also helped by the other lot choosing such a dreadful candidate, who was virtually unelectable. Could he really be the best they had.

    So now Obama has proven to be an absolute fool, either easily duped or actually totally corrupt, could he be reelected?

    If he is, it will be because of his race, not despite it, in my opinion.

  10. Rayvic
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    But does not the President add even more race diversity? It is alleged by many that he was not born in the USA, but in Mombasa, Kenya.

  11. Posted June 12, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Where someone is born does not affect racial diversity. And I find the birther stuff only marginally less tedious than the truther nonsense (though the latter is more offensive).

    [email protected] Doesn’t show up in the evidence.

    [email protected] As I noted, Stephens-Davidowitz’s study does read well and I cannot point to any internal problem in it. It is just a big ask to say that Obama “should” have put in the best non-incumbent performance in 60 years.

    On the Peace and Bread model, counting battlefield deaths as a negative does provide a better “fit”, which is how these things work.

    [email protected] Your comments on PM Gillard’s treatment accord with my take. (Sadly, there is some evidence that sexual stereotypes are actually stronger than racial ones.) And I strongly agree with the problem of premature discounting.

    To my mind, Obama’s biggest problem is that he listened to Larry Summers and apparently completely discounted the importance of monetary policy. By far the biggest failing of his Presidency, making him more Hoover than Roosevelt.

    [email protected] I mostly agree with you, except see para above.

  12. John H.
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    John H, I tend to believe that both Obama and Gillard have been given a fair go and in both regards seem to be found wanting, predominately because of overspending and a pursuit of a false idol(gentle macchia)..

    Henry, irrelevant, I don’t give a hoot about the claims of racism and sexism re those two. My concern is to overturn the idea that racism is simply bad thinking. Racism goes much, much deeper than that. I can explain the roots of racism but I know that any attempt to understand it as a failure of cognition is mistaken. From a purely selfish perspective racism can be a very rational response.

  13. John H.
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I CAN’T explain the roots of racism …

  14. Rayvic
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Is it not a fact that being born outside the USA, disqualifies a candidate from becoming President? It is supposedly alleged by his grandmother that Barack Obama was born at the Coast Provincial General Hospital, Mombasa, Kenya at 7:21pm on August 4, 1961, and four days later his mother flew to Hawaii and registered his birth in Honolulu as a certificate of live birth which omitted the place and hospital of birth.

  15. Posted June 12, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] If racism leads people to make wildly false attributions of characteristics to others, it is bad thinking. And if it subverts and narrows the web of moral protections, it is destructive thinking. To wish to have your group favoured, to have higher status, is a common human ambition. But that is not quite the same thing.

  16. Posted June 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The US Supreme Court has refused to hear a challenge to Obama’s citizenship, Hawaiian officials have repeatedly verified his birth certificate and this non-issue has nothing to do with this thread. So, what [email protected] said.

  17. Mel
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I can make practically any argument with the stats and figs available.

    “56% of the female vote went to Obama, exceeding the usual Democrat advantage.”

    Hmm. Maybe women favoured the handsome black guy over the dumpy little white guy.

    From the same link:

    “Yesterday’s surge in black voters, however, only boosted black turnout by two percentage points from 11% to 13%.”

    Hmm. Maybe black racists who ordinarily wouldn’t vote for any white guy voted this time around because they had a chance to give whitey some stick.

    Anyway, my point is I have no faith in this type of research because of the complexities involved.

  18. kvd
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I love statistical analysis as much as the next person, but I’d be interested to see a considered alternative to the paper. By paper I’m referring to the pdf you linked.

    I’ve run those Google Insights noted in the Appendix, and mucked around with extracting just Arts, Entertainment (a heavy ‘user’ of the proxy-word it seems), and also Government, Legal – which one assumes might be relevant to Obama’s Presidential bid. For the life of me I can’t see the search data as much more than background noise. But anyway, a couple of specifics:

    1. “The racial epithet is not a fringe, rare search: It is now included in more than 7 million searches annually” – surely that has to be a typo? 7M is not even ‘noise’ compared to the number of Google searches annually. It’s more like one chirp of a cricket on Valentines Day.

    2. The paper notes that about one quarter of the searches include the word “jokes”. I’d suggest that the American comedy scene is brimming full of black on black entertainers who may well be a factor in the figures. I am not suggesting for a moment that there is no racism, just sometimes I wonder who is laughing at who.

    3. In the section “Google Compared to GSS” there is this classic:

    Some of the outliers are likely due to small samples for some states using GSS data. For example, Wyoming ranks as significantly more racially prejudiced using the Mas and Moretti (2009) proxy than the Google proxy. However, only 8 white individuals living in Wyoming were asked this question by the GSS. (Two, or twenty-five percent, said they supported a law banning interracial marriage.)

    “..likely due..?” Spare me conclusions based upon a sample of eight individuals, 25% of whom (i.e. 2) gave the answer looked for by the researchers – whatever the question was – and the further presumption that “interraccial” actually means what this researcher wants it to mean.

    But you and LE did good @16,18. A pox upon them all.

  19. kvd
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I hadn’t read Mel’s comments when I posted. I agree with that view entirely.

  20. Rayvic
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Obama’s re-election is going to be affected more adversely by factors other than his colour.

    US economic recovery under Obama has been disappointing. He makes silly mistakes. Just last Friday he said that the private sector was doing just fine. This attracted such an intense backlash that the President took the unusual step of issuing a follow-up statement that same day. “It is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine,” he insisted, “that’s the reason I had the press conference.” Many interpreted this slip as indicating his indifference to the private sector.

    It has been reported that instead of easing the burdens on the private sector and deregulating, the President’s administration has devoted its time and energy to growing more government; in three and a half years, the White House’s only economic solutions have been to borrow, tax, spend, and hire more public employees; and the average American is paying for it.

    . Some statistics since Obama took office:
    • Americans have lost 552,000 jobs and have experienced eight percent (or higher) unemployment rates for 40 straight months
    • 23 million people are either out of work, underemployed, or have given up looking for work
    • 49% of the population are receiving some type of government assistance
    • There has been a 45% spike in the number of people on food stamps
    • The median household income has dropped more than $4,000
    • Gas prices have climbed from $1.84 to $3.61
    • Food prices are higher, college costs are up, and health care premiums have increased by almost $2,000.

    Obama’s political agenda has made many enemies, e.g. when he ordered faith-based groups to turn their backs on church teachings and fund life-destroying drugs. After months of trying to negotiate, the Catholic Church bombarded the Department of Health and Human Services with 12 lawsuits, representing an army of dioceses, hospitals, schools, and charities across eight states and the District of Columbia. A total of 43 entities will fight to end the strangling of religious freedom in America.

  21. derrida derider
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Yawn, Rayvic, if people in other countries (as virtually all of us here are) wanted to hear the talking-points-du-jour of the GOP they’d log onto the GOP website, not read your guff. Stick to the topic please. And even there if you have nothing original to add then don’t add anything.

    Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

  22. Larry
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Conservatives tend not to play the racial specific pandering game that progressives play because they are more interested in the character, not the skin colour.
    The vast majority of conservatives really are colour blind. They don’t really care whether some one is black, white, yellow, or brindle, they care whether the person is a good, worthwhile person. I’ve seen far too many progressives set out to make “friends” in different ethnic or racial groups purely to prove that they are progressive, not for any other reason.

  23. Mel
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Rayvic @22 couldn’t either be bothered putting togather his own talking points. Instead, he copied them without acknowledgement from a dodgy conservative group calling itself the Family Research Council.

    Also note the “gold standard” research that proves lesbian parents are giving their kids STDs and molesting them in droves.

    Larry @24 is also clearly blowing hot air out of his back passage. Remember, it was only a few short years ago that Republican Presidential nominee Romney’s Church finally admitted blacks were human and allowed them full admittance into their Church. Then there’s the Birther Movement and the whiter than snow Tea Party ….

    You have such nice friends, Lorenzo 🙂

  24. Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] And American conservatives of course only judge gay folk by the content of their character too. (Or is it being gay is proof of bad character?)

    This is really not the blog to come calling and expect US conservative talking points to get ticked.

  25. Rayvic
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    The Obama art of spin played a large part in winning voters for his first term, but he has lost a lot of fans since. Today’s Australian reports the desertion of his biggest fan, ‘Obama Girl’, and observes “but the fact that Obama’s surrogates can’t stick to the script may be the best barometer of his perilous incumbency”. African-American disenchantment with Obama would result in fewer of them turning up at the ballot box.

  26. Posted June 14, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Obama does face an uphill re-election battle, mainly because he listened to Larry Summers and paid no serious attention to monetary policy.

    But I would not put much truck on African-American turn out being significantly down. The lure of a black American President over a Mormon white Republican is likely to be pretty strong.

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