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Is Obama’s Race a Net Negative at the Polls?


Late last year, I noted a study about how racism might have affected Barack Obama’s 2008 vote total. A researcher used Google searches that include the N-word as a measure of racism — some areas of the country produce far more of these searches than others, and many of the searches are requests for racist jokes. The study found that the more of these searches originated in a given area, the worse Obama performed there in 2008 relative to John Kerry’s 2004 numbers.

As I said at the time, the study is imperfect in some ways, but the methodology and results strike me as basically plausible — there are still racists in America, some of them are Democrats and independents whose votes might change because of a Democratic candidate’s race, Google searches for the N-word are probably a decent proxy for racism, etc. However, the study does not show that being black hurt Obama on net, because it makes no attempt to find people who voted for Obama because he was black.

In a New York Times piece, the study’s author summarizes his results and offers a quick rebuttal to this line of argument:

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.

That’s a start, but it’s not particularly convincing. The author’s own estimates indicate that Obama’s race cost him three to five percentage points in 2008, so the increased black support alone wipes out a decent proportion of that. And then there are the young; between their higher turnout and their much greater support for the Democratic candidate, about 4–4.5 million more people in the 18–29 age bracket voted for Obama than voted for Kerry. That’s more than 3 percent of the total votes cast in 2008. How much of that had to do with race? And how many people older than 29 voted for Obama, as opposed to staying home or voting for McCain, because he was black?

I have no idea, and neither does the author of this study.


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