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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. Patrick says:

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

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  8. 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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