Did Obama Lose Votes Because of His Race?

Most observers, with the exception of those who fervently believe in a “colorblind” America, accept the role race plays in perceptions of Barack Obama. His blackness influences supporters—generating enthusiasm for his candidacy—and detractors, from right-wing provocateurs like Rush Limbaugh. to left-wing critics like Cornel West.

If there’s still an open question, it’s to what extent has Obama’s race played a part in his vote share. Presidential voting is influenced by a wide range of factors, from partisanship and economic conditions, to ideology and wealth. And since Obama won a majority of the vote in both of his elections, it seems like a stretch to say he somehow lost votes as a result of his race—he’s the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win two terms with a majority of the popular vote. Who else could he have lost?

Two years ago, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz—a Harvard economist—tried to answer this question. Of course, quantifying racial bias—to say nothing of its effects—is incredibly difficult. In general, people just aren’t willing to express explicit prejudice in surveys, in large part because most people don’t like to think of themselves as prejudiced, even if they hold bigoted views (there aren’t many Bull Connors in the world). With that in mind, Davidowitz used a different approach—Google. As he noted last year, “Google, aggregating information from billions of searches, has an uncanny ability to reveal meaningful social patterns.” Moreover, “The conditions under which people use Google — online, most likely alone, not participating in an official survey — are ideal for capturing what they are really thinking and feeling.” And most importantly, people use Google to find “racially-charged material.”

What he found was that Obama underperformed the most in those areas of the country where racially-charged searches were most prevalent:

Consider two media markets, Denver and Wheeling (which is a market evenly split between Ohio and West Virginia). Mr. Kerry received roughly 50 percent of the votes in both markets. Based on the large gains for Democrats in 2008, Mr. Obama should have received about 57 percent of votes in both Denver and Wheeling. Denver and Wheeling, though, exhibit different racial attitudes. Denver had the fourth lowest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won 57 percent of the vote there, just as predicted. Wheeling had the seventh highest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won less than 48 percent of the Wheeling vote.

Overall, in the 2008 presidential election, racial animus cost Obama between three and five percentage points, the equivalent of giving John McCain a home-state advantage nationwide.

For 2012, Stephens-Davidowitz reran the experiment, to see if the results would differ now that the public is familiar with Barack Obama as a political figure. Nope. At the low end, Obama’s race cost him 3.2 percentage points in last year’s presidential election. At the high end, it cost him six full points. Nationally, Davidowitz estimates that Obama lost four points from his total as a result of racial animus. Again, giving Mitt Romney the equivalent of a home-state advantage throughout the country.

There a lot of things to take away from this, but here are two. First, this should throw (some) water on the view—held by many, including myself—that the economy is all that matters in presidential elections. Economics is an important factor in predicting elections, but it’s not the only one. Racism is just one of many variables that has a huge effect on the outcome of presidential contests.

And second? If this is correct, and Obama underperformed by roughly four points in 2008 and 2012, then there’s a chance that the Democratic brand is stronger than we think. We’ll see in 2016, but a “threepeat” for the Democratic Party might be more likely than we think, given the potentially wider support for a white Democratic nominee for president.