Monday, June 11, 2012

A Stab At Race And 2012

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard, offered an interesting and provocative analysis on Saturday's New York Times op-ed page.   He argued

And many Americans use Google to find racially charged material. I performed the somewhat unpleasant task of ranking states and media markets in the United States based on the proportion of their Google searches that included the word “nigger(s).” This word was included in roughly the same number of Google searches as terms like “Lakers,” “Daily Show,” “migraine” and “economist.”

A huge proportion of the searches I looked at were for jokes about African-Americans. (I did not include searches that included the word “nigga” because these searches were mostly for rap lyrics.) I used data from 2004 to 2007 because I wanted a measure not directly influenced by feelings toward Mr. Obama. From 2008 onward, “Obama” is a prevalent term in racially charged searches.

The state with the highest racially charged search rate in the country was West Virginia. Other areas with high percentages included western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York and southern Mississippi.

Once I figured out which parts of the country had the highest racially charged search rates, I could test whether Mr. Obama underperformed in these areas. I predicted how many votes Mr. Obama should have received based on how many votes John Kerry received in 2004 plus the average gain achieved byother 2008 Democratic Congressional candidates. The results were striking: The higher the racially charged search rate in an area, the worse Mr. Obama did.

Consider two media markets, Denver and Wheeling (which is a market evenly split between Ohio and West Virginia). Mr. Kerry received roughly 50 percent of the votes in both markets. Based on the large gains for Democrats in 2008, Mr. Obama should have received about 57 percent of votes in both Denver and Wheeling. Denver and Wheeling, though, exhibit different racial attitudes. Denver had the fourth lowest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won 57 percent of the vote there, just as predicted. Wheeling had the seventh highest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won less than 48 percent of the Wheeling vote.

Add up the totals throughout the country, and racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote. In other words, racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally.

Yes, Mr. Obama also gained some votes because of his race. But in the general election this effect was comparatively minor. The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate. Increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama’s totals.

If my findings are correct, race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012. Most modern presidential elections are close. Losing even two percentage points lowers the probability of a candidate’s winning the popular vote by a third. And prejudice could cost Mr. Obama crucial states like Ohio, Florida and even Pennsylvania.

There is the possibility, of course, that racial prejudice will play a smaller role in 2012 than it did in 2008, now that the country is familiar with a black president. Some recent events, though, suggest otherwise. I mentioned earlier that the rate of racially charged searches in West Virginia was No. 1 in the country and that the state showed a strong aversion to Mr. Obama in 2008. It recently held its Democratic presidential primary, in which Mr. Obama was challenged by a convicted felon. The felon, who is white, won 41 percent of the vote.

In 2008, Mr. Obama rode an unusually strong tail wind. The economy was collapsing. The Iraq war was unpopular. Republicans took most of the blame. He was able to overcome the major obstacle of continuing racial prejudice in the United States. In 2012, the tail wind is gone; the obstacle likely remains.

If 2008 is any indicator, we will never know what impact race will have had on the presidential election of 2012.      There was far too little analysis of its effect following Senator Obama's election to the presidency.    Stephens-Davidowitz contends "increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama's totals."  He gives short shrift to the possibility of whites who may have cast their votes for the Chicagoan because of his race- either directly or, more likely indirectly, wishing to cast their lot (and enhance their self-image) with an individual who would make "history."    Obama may have picked up only one additional percentage point nationally from his tremendous support among blacks- but it may have been far greater in Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, or North Carolina, in which the Democrat's victory margin was slim.

Stephens-Davidowitz notes Obama was elected in a climate of an economy that was "collapsing" and a war which was "unpopular."     Unfortunately, that obstacle, which he notes "likely remains," probably has increased.     The results of 2008 gave conservatives (though overwhelmingly voting against Obama) and moderates (some of whom voted against Obama) the opportunity to assure themselves and others that the U.S.A. is no longer racist- after all, we elected a black President!

The media, synonymous in Repub minds with "the liberal media," has been complicit.    Written and broadcast journalists often seemed relieved with Obama's election, emphasizing the historical and ground-breaking nature of the victory while downplaying the environment which led (as Stephens-Davidowitz evidently understands) almost inevitably to the election of the anti-Bush.    Ironically, the Fourth Estate thereby  indirectly harmed Obama's re-election prospects, with many moderates/independents (and conservatives/Republicans) now satisfied that they helped elect the first black President.  Voting for re-election is unnecessary.  

Some opposition to Obama, affected by race, is expressed instead by outrage at the economy, the debt, or the lack of civility in Washington.     Or, perhaps, they really believe Obama is a socialist, which would suggest a level of awareness somewhere between a pea and a zucchini.

If Obama loses, the media will neither point to race and risk being accused of "reverse racism," nor provide complex analysis, which is assiduously avoided.   If Barack Obama scores an electoral victory, they will never acknowledge that it might have been enhanced by his race for fear of attributing a racial motive to the votes of African-Americans.    So we salute Stephens-Davidowitz, drawing attention to a factor consistently treated superficially, when at all.

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