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%

      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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  9. stuart says:

    I just wonder how the study accounts for the minorities who use the n-word but overwhelmingly supported his election.

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  10. Mike says:

    On the surface, there are so many factors that go into these things that its hard to believe the author is on to something. And if he is on to something, can any good come out of this study?

    I can’t help but think the results will come out differently in 2012. Then we’ll say racism in voting doubled or vanished.

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  11. Cyril Morong says:

    I recall that Obama got a higher % of the white vote than either Kerry (2004) or Gore (2000). It was close, only about 1 percentage point, in the low 40s.

    “Clinton repeated the feat in 1996, but afterward, the Democratic performance among whites began to decline. As the party’s nominees became more liberal, the Clinton coalition slowly dissipated. Al Gore won only 44 percent of the two-party vote among whites nationally, while John Kerry won just 41 percent of the white vote. In 2008, for all the hype about Obama’s “broad” coalition, he only won 43 percent of the white vote, about two points better than Kerry. Obama’s win came almost entirely from turning out more minority voters, and doing better among them.”

    Gore’s white % might be lower if Nader’s votes are included. From


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  12. Cyril Morong says:

    Todd Donovan of the Department of Political Science, Western Washington University published an article called “Obama and the White Vote” in 2010 in “Political Research Quarterly.”

    Here is the link



    “This article draws on the racial threat thesis to test if white voters who lived in areas with larger African American populations were less receptive to Barack Obama in 2008. Racial context is found to structure white voters’ evaluations of Obama and, thus, affect where the Democrats gained presidential vote share over 2004. The overall Democratic swing was lower in states where a white Democrat (Hillary Clinton) had more appeal to white voters than Obama.
    Obama increased the Democrats’ share of the white vote, but gains were associated with positive evaluations of Obama among white voters in places with smaller African American populations. The likelihood that a white voter supported Obama also decreased as the African American population of the respondent’s congressional district increased. The results are relevant to discussions of the future of the Voting Rights Act and to conceptions of a “postracial” America.”

    One passage reads

    “…exit polls estimated white voters’ support for Obama was slightly greater than for John Kerry in 2004 or Al Gore in 2000.”

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  13. Brandon says:

    Related question: how many votes did racism gain for him?

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  14. Callenlaw says:

    It’s anecdotal I know, but I recall at least two conversations with friend who made the statement that they were voting for Obama because, in part, they “could not imagine voting against the first black President.” Assuming this methodology is sound, I wonder, as I live in one of the highly-populated regions identified as “more tolerant,” if there was a significant “reverse-racism” impact not just among blacks, as others here suggest, but among whites in those areas as well.

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  15. Joe J says:

    Admittedly there is an inherent problem in trying to measure racism and it’s effects if any. This seems to be more of a convoluted way than others. It assumes PC ism that the words you use is a direct indication of your racism, except we will exclude some groups for the use of those words.

    Other studies have been done. including more direct polling, which also includes how racism benifitted Obama.

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  16. kd says:

    But does the study address the other side of the coin – the percentage of blacks that voted for Obama simply because he is black. Similarly, wouldn’t the study be more complete if it looked at racial bias against both candidates. The assumption that racism only happens against people of color (any color) is naive.

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    • Major Minor says:

      “The assumption that racism only happens against people of color (any color) is naive.” All people are people of color. The little girls in the Amazon Doll House post are pink and brown and equally adorable.

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  17. Artemis Fowl says:

    This research method presumes that absolutely 0% of the population voted for him *because* he was black. If he gained, for instance, a 6% increase in turnout among voters who wanted to help elect the first black president… then in net being black was a benefit *not* a “loss”.

    And if anyone (and surely someone did) voted for him because he was black, then they were intrinsically also voting against his opponent because his opponent was not also black.

    The entire premise here is that racism can only work as a benefit to a white candidate (John McCain) and not as a benefit to a black one. In other words, it only looks for racism against Obama.

    The research itself starts from a racially biased assumption. It is hardly shocking that they managed to find a method to confirm that.

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  18. Scott says:

    I’ll be dammed I knew it, to bad that racism will probably cost him the re-election too. Also the economy

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    • artemis says:

      Yes, if you keep trying enough different methods, you can usually find *one* that will confirm what you “knew”. Of course we’ll just stroll past the dozens of studies that failed to confirm what you “knew”

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  19. Seth says:

    Let’s say Seth is right about the 3% – 5%, isn’t that good news? Isn’t this an indicator that racism is the exception, rather than the norm?

    We all knew the election was a sign of improvement on racism, but given the noise the topic generates in our society, I would have expected the negative impact to be much higher.

    At this point, I’m guessing short stature would have a more negative impact on election results than race.

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  20. Sam says:

    As mentioned in a few previous comments, this study fails to consider the widely-known fact the black community often use the ‘n-word’ towards each other, not in a racist or derogatory way, but in a friendly manner. This therefore has most probably made your results both inaccurate and worthless, as such a term clearly doesn’t embody racism in its entirety…

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  21. DaveyNC says:

    It seems that the premise of the study was that Obama had the votes in the first place. The undercurrent of the study is to look at the morons who weren’t smart enough to vote for Obama.

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  22. jeremy slack says:

    I would like to see the published map results above side by side with a population map of african americans in the united states. i wonder how the two compare.

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  23. J1 says:

    One problem I have with the claim here is that it fails to attempt to measure votes Obama gained due to his race – and I don’t mean from black voters, who for the most part are already yellow dog democrats. I know a couple of (white) independents who admit they specifically voted for Obama because he was black.

    I don’t find his explanation on page 8 convincing, as it effectively assumes all rap fans are black, which is ridiculous (though maybe not to a Harvard student).

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  24. RGJ says:

    Oh fer the love of Mike.

    Can anyone, truly, in their deepest of deep hearts, with a truth gun of absolute knowledge pointed at their head and their life depending on the answer, think that the junior Senator from Illinois could have been elected dogcatcher if he looked like Opie from Mayberry?

    I think there are positives to Obama’s election from the viewpoint of our society getting past a racial hump and our children seeing a diverse leadership etc, but to actually try and turn it into some sort of bizarro world that says color hurt him is insane. The guy was unelectable as a white guy. Sorry. Period. Pile on the dislikes if it makes you feel good.

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  25. Tim says:

    This is really poor scholarship, fraught with all sorts of really basic statistical traps and errors, not the least of which is attempting to make Kerry the “control”. Ludicrous. Harvard has nothing to be proud of here.

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  26. alex in chicago says:

    I’m sorry, but suddenly I only can see 3 comments per page. How can one fix this?

    Chrome if that helps.

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  27. Elmer Fudd says:

    Interesting analysis…..but how many of Obama’s voters voted FOR Obama BECAUSE he was black? Those voters were motivated by racism, too, were they not?

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  28. Bobby says:

    This “study” fails to take into account the racial votes that benefited Obama. I live in California, and I know many people who voted for Obama – or at least in part- because he was black. Of course in a perfect society race would not matter, but to just count the votes Obama lost because of his race only tells half the story. I strongly, strongly believe Obama benefited from the racial votes (votes that were ultimately cast because of the candidates race).

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  29. Bruce Hall says:

    Interesting, but presumes that only white, negative racism is a factor. You’re smart enough to figure out the converse.

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  30. Becky says:

    If you took away the the racial bias in FAVOR of Obama (mentioned repeatedly in these comments) and the liberal bias of most journalists, media and academia, all of which are well-documented . . . who would have really won in 2008?

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  31. Patrick says:

    So, if people were not racist then they would be liberal? They would vote for Obama? Ridiculous

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  32. RGJ says:

    If the goal was to stimulate angry conversation, then this post was awesome. But if it was to give any credence whatsoever to the methodology here, it is ridiculous.

    To point out just one point of stupidity, the n-word is a huge facet of rap lyrics nowadays, and song lyrics are constantly googled by people looking for artist’s identities or just the exact words. I wager MOST searches are done by raps fans. not racists. What the heck is a racist going to google the N-word for?

    You’d be better served counting pickup trucks. Seriously.

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  33. J0e says:

    Its the opposite, race won him the both elections.

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