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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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