Did Racism Cost Obama Votes in 2008?

A new paper (PDF here) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard Ph.D. economics student, attempts to measure whether “racial animus” cost Barack Obama votes in 2008. Using location-specific Google searches for racial epithets collected on Google Insights, and comparing Obama’s 2008 performance to John Kerry‘s in 2004, the study concludes that racism cost Obama 3 to 5 percentage points in the popular vote:

Traditional surveys struggle to capture socially unacceptable attitudes such as racial animus. This paper uses Google searches including racially charged language as a proxy for a local area’s racial animus. I use the Google-search proxy, available for roughly 200 media markets in the United States, to reassess the impact of racial attitudes on voting for a black candidate in the United States. I compare an area’s racially charged search volume to its votes for Barack Obama, the 2008 black Democratic presidential candidate, controlling for its votes for John Kerry, the 2004 white Democratic presidential candidate. Other studies using a similar empirical specification and standard state-level survey measures of racial attitudes yield little evidence that racial animus had a major impact in recent U.S. elections. Using the Google-search proxy, I find significant and robust effects in the 2008 presidential election. The estimates imply that racial animus in the United States cost Obama three to five percentage points in the national popular vote in the 2008 election.

To circumvent the problem of people under-reporting their own racist tendencies, Stephens-Davidowitz used the percentage of an area’s total Google searches that included the n-word as a proxy for an area’s level of racism. It turns out the word appeared as frequently as words like “charity,” “hispanic,” “nausea,” “sweater,” and “migraine(s).” 

The demographic factor most strongly correlated with racially charged searches is education level. Stephens-Davidowitz found that a 10 percentage-point increase in college graduates correlates with almost a one standard deviation decrease in racially charged search.

Searches for the n-word were most popular in West Virginia, upstate New York, rural Illinois, eastern Ohio, and southern Mississippi. They were least popular in Laredo, Tex. (a largely Hispanic market); Hawaii; parts of California; Utah; and urban Colorado.

Here’s a map of the results, with the darker colors representing areas with the most frequent searches for the term:

Search volume for the n-word from 2004-2007, at the media market level. Darker areas signify higher search volume. White areas signify media markets without data.

See page 8 of the study to see how the author addresses the issue that the n-word is a common reference in rap songs.

While Obama won 53.7 percent of votes in ’08, the study suggests he would have claimed between 56.7 and 58.7 percent if “the whole country had the racial attitudes of the most tolerant areas.” Stephens-Davidowitz concludes that racism gave John McCain “the equivalent of a home state advantage country-wide.”

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

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  1. Curtis says:

    Okay, please do the same for McCain (old, frail) and Palin (retarded) and see if the racism advantage McCain supposedly got still holds up.

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    • Travis says:

      I get your post, but in the spirit of taking everything seriously:

      It’s OK to not vote someone into office because you are concerned about them dying prematurely (old, frail) or because they are mentally handicapped (retarded). Not voting because someone is black (n-word) is a completely different level of social acceptability, because that factor has no impact on the ability of the individual to do the job (outside of things like assassination worries), while the previous two factors could have a real impact.

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  2. DrTocToc says:

    While racial animus may have costed Obama votes, a large fraction (more than 80% if I recall) of the Afro-American community voted for him. One study could find out he won because of and not despite the fact he was black…

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    • Nate says:

      Actually, 95% voted for him in 2008 as opposed to 88% of african americans who voted for Kerry in 2004. However there were also 2 million more african americans who voted in 2008 compared to 2004. This probably isn’t enough to cancel out this “negative racism” factor, but is definitely enough that it should have been factored in. (Source: cnn and NYT election results websites)

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      • Jon says:

        Plenty of whites voted for Obama because of his race as well. Many of my white friends that voted for Obama considered his race a big plus, for a variety of reasons (conscious and unconscious). On balance, I would guess Obama’s race led to a net gain of votes.

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    • Neil (SM) says:

      It was more than 90% — but that number has been steady in favor of the (white or black) democrat candidate for the past several general presidential elections.

      I think it was a few percentage points higher for the 2008 election though. But since the U.S. Black (voting and overall) population is lower, this few percentage-points increase in the black vote does not cancel out the few-points decrease on the other side.

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      • Elmer Fudd says:

        You might want to check your figures…….in 2004, W was the first candidate to get 50% of the vote since his father was elected in 88……

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    • Dave says:

      It’s well over 80% actually: 95%
      http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls/#USP00p1

      Since that group makes up 13% of the population and using 2004 as a control (88%, http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/pages/results/states/US/P/00/epolls.0.html ), we can calculate the advantage he got from racist blacks was only about 1% (.91%) of the popular vote.

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      • dave says:

        racism was used as a tool in order to disqualify his opponent.
        you cannot evaluate how many times the race card is used to disparage someone, nor if the voter response is positive or negative.

        the only real voters effected would be the independents. if the media likes the message, the praise it. if they do not, they revile it. the media also spins whatever was said to show what their point of view is and wrap it up in ‘what he meant to say..’

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    • Nate says:

      Same thing with Romney. Some people REALLY hate Mormons and wont vote for a Mormon candidate no matter what. I don’t see why, all the Mormons I have met are great people. However, being a Mormon also got him a lot of votes, too bad they were all from Utah… a state that he would have won anyway.

      People tend to vote for their own. Which is really dumb.

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      • Bennett says:

        Historically disadvantaged groups have every reason to believe that greater representation in politics might lead to better circumstances for their group as a whole. It’s silly to insist that black voters voting for a black candidate are no less ignorant than white voters voting against a black candidate.

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    • Paperboy_JN says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. contemplativecarrot says:

    Looks like Lake Superior is pretty racist

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  4. DJ says:

    Very poor thinking and methodology… This is the type of grasping at straws I would expect from a middle school student.

    This is classic looking for an outcome and then bending data to fit your presumptions.

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  5. Hoss says:

    I think the entire study starts with bias. The first bias is that racism only had a negative influence. Where’s the study showing the racist bias FOR Obama? I know of several people who voted for him specifically because he is black. Secondarily, when did the “N-word” become a barometer for racism? I guess that much of the black community must actually hate the black community if I take into account how often they use that term themselves.

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  6. Lee says:

    Racism also enabled him to capture 96% of the African-American vote.

    How much ‘racial animus’ did that cost McCain?

    Nice try.

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  7. Jaime Velo says:

    But how many white votes did he pick up from the “i’m not racist and I’ll demonstrate it by voting for a black guy, that’s how open-minded I am”-crowd? And btw, Obama is HALF white you know. Why do we call him black? In fact, you could argue he is more white than black given his upbringing.

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  8. James says:

    The larger question here ought to be why this sort of information is even collected, or made available to any entity outside Google’s search engine optimization team.

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    • Jeffro says:

      The real numbers have been doctored on every news site from the goverenment.

      obama actually got about 16 million black votes as opposed to Kerry’s 8 million

      obama aslo got 30 million hispanic vote (many illegal) as compared to 11 milion for Kerry.

      obama won because he was black.

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