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Commentary: Race, Obama and public opinion

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2010 - Was Barack Obama’s 2008 victory a historic milestone?

As recently as 1963, only 48 percent of white Americans responded “yes” to the Gallup Poll’s “if your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be black, would you vote for that person?” Forty-five years later, when the hypothetical scenario became an actual situation, enough white Americans (43 percent) cast their ballot for an African-American to make him a winner.

Is the Obama presidency a watershed event for race relations in the United States or just a small step in a lengthy journey? The initial evidence tilted toward the quantum leap interpretation but the later and more thorough analyses support a more sober conclusion.

The immediate afterglow was primarily fueled by comparing the November result with August predictions. When one averaged the nine leading social science projections about the 2008 presidential outcome, all made two or more months prior to the election and based on factors such as economic conditions and incumbent approval ratings, the two-party share estimate for the generic Democratic candidate was 53.3 percent. Obama received 53.7 percent, slightly exceeding expectations. The preliminary inference: race was at most a trace factor.

But two subsequent analyses have reached a more pessimistic conclusion. Race did matter and, as I wrote in a column in the January/February issue of The St. Louis Journalism Review, “a white Obama would have had a landslide, not just a victory.”

The aggregate predictions assumed incorrectly that economic conditions and presidential approval ratings would be much the same in fall 2008 as they were in spring and summer of that year. But the financial meltdown spiked in mid-September, and George Bush’s approval ratings dropped 10 points between July and October. When one plugs those adjusted numbers into the equations, the consensus estimate for the generic Democrat becomes almost 60 percent, up five to six points from the original predictions and, more instructively, five to six points above the Obama performance.

The other study applied two different ways of measuring racial predispositions to a national probability sample conducted through the internet by a group of Stanford University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill scholars. Potential bias about internet availability was eliminated by supplying access to those not having it. One measurement approach uses a set of eight questions, dubbed the “symbolic racism” scale, the prevailing technique for the past two decades. The second exploited internet visuals by employing racial images prior to asking respondents to judge the “pleasantness” of ideograms.

Defining a racially motivated vote by a white citizen as either someone who other factors (e.g., political party identification, ideology) would strongly predict to be a Obama supporter but backed John McCain instead or someone who other factors (e.g., past voting behavior, educational level) would have not voted at all but did turn out for McCain and, in either case, who demonstrated anti-black responses on the racial measures, they estimate that race was the dominant factor for about 5 percent of white Americans.

That, of course, is about the same number generated by recalculating the aggregate equations. Social scientists gain more confidence when different research designs using diverse measures obtain similar findings.

How should we interpret this 5 percent?

Well, it means that about one out of every nine white votes for McCain was motivated more than anything else by the fact that his opponent was black. It was not pro-McCain, it was anti-black. Perhaps one should be encouraged by it being only one of nine, but a democracy where being a black presidential candidate generates a five-point headwind is hardly a level political playing field.

Most postwar presidential elections have been close enough that five percentage points would have changed the outcome. 2008 did not necessarily demonstrate that white Americans have bridged the nation’s racial chasm. A more realistic and considerably narrower interpretation would be that, if there is a severe recession, an ill-advised and unpopular war, an incumbent with lower-than-low approval ratings, and an opposing vice presidential nominee considered unqualified by 59 percent, then and only a challenger who is African American, especially a challenger who is biracial, can win the presidency.

The Obama victory was a special moment for racial justice in the United States, but the journey to reach Dr. Martin Luther King’s standard of judging people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin still stretches beyond the immediate horizon.

Terry Jones is professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of "Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments." 

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