Voters, Emotions, and Race in 2008: Obama as the First Black President

Article excerpt

Abstract

Social desirability effects make it difficult to learn voters' racial attitudes. List experiments can tap sensitive issues without directly asking respondents to express overt opinions. The authors report on such an experiment about Barack Obama as the first black president, finding that 30 percent of white Americans were "troubled" by the prospect of Obama as the first black president. The authors examine policy and emotional underpinnings of these responses, finding that expressed emotions of anxiety and enthusiasm condition latent racial attitudes and racial policy beliefs especially for those exhibiting a social desirability bias. The results suggest that Obama's victory despite this level of concern about race was at least in part a result of intense enthusiasm his campaign generated. This enthusiasm for Obama may have allowed some white voters to overcome latent concerns about his race. The research suggests emotions are critical in understanding racial attitudes.

Keywords

race, religion, Obama, emotion, list experiment, 2008 election, voting and elections, public opinion

For more than six decades the role of race in American politics has captured the interest of academics and pundits alike. In Southern Politics V. O. Key (1949) examined the underlying forces that structured politics in Southern states, putting black disenfranchisement at the center of southern politics. But the widespread explicit racism that Key documented is difficult to imagine today. The election of Barack Obama as the first African American president is evidence for many that the equality dreamed of during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movements has been, for the most part, achieved. Throughout this historic campaign emotions ran high as anxiety about Obama (among Republicans and conservatives) and enthusiasm, especially among younger voters, generated the highest voter turnout since the 1960s. In his inaugural address, President Obama used the fact that his own father would not have been served in most Washington, D.C., restaurants not many years ago as evidence of how far America has come from its past. Yet students of race and politics will not be as quick to dismiss the importance of race and ethnicity in the modern version of Key's have-have-not conflict. In fact, there is some evidence that his race was a significant disadvantage for Obama in 2008. Despite his clear electoral victory over John McCain, some argue that Obama's winning margin was much smaller than expected given the state of the economy and historically low approval rating of the incumbent president (Lewis-Beck and Tien 2008, 2009).

There is no doubt that Obama's nomination and victory in the 2008 presidential election are historic. The United States fought the Civil War over whether black slavery was an abomination in the "land of the free." Reconstruction at first put African Americans on an equal footing with whites in the South but later became synonymous with oppression based on color. For nearly sixty years the nation operated under the Plessey v. Ferguson doctrine of "separate but equal," in which separation was anything but equal. And two U.S. presidents (Lincoln and Kennedy) lost their lives at least in part because they fought for equality for blacks. Andrew Delbancoin the November 6, 2008, New York Review of Books writes, "It's been sixty years since the Dixiecrats walked out of the 1948 Democratic convention, more than forty since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, and twenty since the elder George Bush ran his Willie Horton ads." Yet despite this history, in 2008 the American public elected a black man to lead the nation.

There is much to examine about the role of race in American politics sixty years after Key's groundbreaking work on racial threat that found whites residing in Southern counties with higher African American populations were more likely to adopt more segregationist policies. And yet there is considerable resistance from scholars and political pundits to the idea of racial voting in 2008. …