Racing To The Bottom

The number one golden rule of statistical analysis:  Correlation does not always equal causation.  Having said that, there’s pretty strong correlation in this NY Times analysis of areas with high incidences of racially charged Google searches and areas where President Obama underperformed in 2008 by Seth Stevens-Davidowitz:

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.


Add up the totals throughout the country, and racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote. In other words, racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally.

Yes, Mr. Obama also gained some votes because of his race. But in the general election this effect was comparatively minor. The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate. Increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama’s totals.

If my findings are correct, race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012. Most modern presidential elections are close. Losing even two percentage points lowers the probability of a candidate’s winning the popular vote by a third. And prejudice could cost Mr. Obama crucial states like Ohio, Florida and even Pennsylvania.


The argument here in my eyes is whether or not this has already been factored into the votes.  My theory is that in these areas where President Obama underperformed, race was a factor, but people were honest about not wanting to vote for President Obama, they just lied about the reason why.  If that’s correct, the polls actually are already taking this into effect, and why crosstabs don’t always appear to make sense.

You can say you’re planning to vote for Romney because of the economy.  You can really just not like Barack Obama because he’s black.  The point is people aren’t going to lie and say they’re going to vote for Obama when they lie about race as a factor, so the numbers are still where they would be if the reasons were honestly reported.

Second, in the areas where this is the most prevalent, President Obama lost by more than that margin in those markets.  West Virginia without the seven point thumb on the scale would have been at best a tie as Obama lost there by 15 points, and that’s again assuming the votes were factored in.  If the average was 3-5 points, Kentucky’s 16 point McCain win would have been always out of reach.  The electoral college blunted the effect here and will do so again in 2012.

I’m not surprised by this and in fact it’s pretty damn impressive (and depressive) to see just how many American voters are lying to pollsters and kudos to the approach used here, but after 5 years of this in primaries and the 2008 and 2010 elections, by now the folks who aren’t going to vote for Obama based solely on race are either living in areas where the state will stay red anyway, or they’ve found other reasons to oppose him to tell pollsters instead.  I have my doubts that these preferences aren’t already being factored in to current polls…in fact I can almost guarantee you they are.


Which is good news, in one sense.  Yes, we should be very concerned with several million Americans out there with their bigotry in full bloom.  But they’re already counted in the polls is my guess.  No need to double-count them and borrow even more trouble.  If anything, at least Team Obama knows what markets now they need to be paying special attention to…and which are lost causes.  That’s valuable knowledge in and of itself.

Depressingly awful and maddeningly terrible knowledge, but useful nonetheless.


Written by | Zandar

Zandar is ABLC's Cincinnati-area correspondent, covering Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana politics and all the nearly endless unintentional comedy the Tri-State area brings. He's proprietor of Zandar vs. The Stupid, where he's been blogging since 2008, and you can also find him at Balloon Juice and The Reaction as a contributor, or you can yell at him on Twitter at @ZandarVTS.

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