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. stuart says:

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

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. Brandon says:

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

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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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