Hope, Tropes, and Dopes: Hispanic and White Racial Animus in the 2008 Election

Article excerpt

The Hispanic voter--and I want to say this very carefully--has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.

--Clinton Pollster Sergio Bendixen to Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker, January 21, 2008

The Democratic Party's nomination of an African American as its standard-bearer in the 2008 presidential election created an unprecedented opportunity to examine the role of race in electoral choice. Barack Obama managed to win an Electoral College landslide and, for the first time in a generation, a majority of the popular vote for the Democratic nominee. But Obama's historic nomination and election served as shocks to the political system and to political science research investigating the role of race in electoral politics. On the one hand, some observers were quick to announce the end of race as a determinative force in American electoral politics, suggesting that Obama's race was unrelated to two-party choice and the dawn of a postracial society. By contrast, others raised suggestions during the primary that racial sentiments would hobble an Obama effort in the general election--specifically, that interminority conflict might suppress Obama's vote among Hispanics. (1) With the election behind us, we now can ask what, if any, evidence is available for these claims?

In this effort, we explore the role of race in the 2008 election, with particular attention to the possible importance of interminority dynamics in shaping the two-party vote. In so doing, we employ multiple indicators of racial sentiment--explicit, indirect, and implicit--to ascertain the predictive validity of each, using data from the 2008 American National Election Study (ANES). We argue, first, that racial sentiments vary considerably across voters when grouped by partisan attachment and two-party vote. Second, we observe that there is far less variation between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites, suggesting that the attitudinal basis for a strong racially motivated vote exists among Latinos. Third, beyond its effects on partisan attachments, racial sentiment had a unique additional effect on the voting behavior of Americans in the last election, but this effect was significantly attenuated or altogether absent among Latinos. Notwithstanding their similar distributions on measures of race sentiment, Latino voters do not appear to have applied those sentiments to an evaluation of then-candidate Obama. Finally, we show that a similar pattern of results obtains when examining the full range of evaluation and intensity of views on Obama, rather than solely the dichotomous vote choice.

Race and American Elections

The notion that Obama's election was in any way postracial is belied by the facts on the ground. National exit polls estimate that Obama received only 43% of the white vote at a time when the United States was engaged in two hot wars overseas, faced an economy in complete freefall, and had an incumbent president with some of the lowest popularity ratings in the history of polling on the matter. By contrast, Obama received clear majorities among Asian Americans (62%), "others" (66%), Latinos or Hispanics (67%), and African Americans (95%). By any measure, the electorate remains racially polarized and, in light of the economic and political circumstances of the country during the fall campaign, Obama may well have underperformed what we might expect from another Democrat, although such a counterfactual is not available.

Bowler and Segura (forthcoming) argue that race can be realized in a vote choice in two manners. First, they suggest, because race is deeply embedded in the structure of American party coalitions (Carmines and Stimson 1989), racial sentiment is ever present in the two-party vote. If, for example, we examined the racial and ethnic breakdown of the vote between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, we would also find considerable (albeit less) racial polarization. Democratic presidential candidates have not won a majority of white votes since the 1964 election. …

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