Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Obama and the White Vote

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Obama and the White Vote

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article draws on the racial threat thesis to test if white voters who lived in areas with larger African American populations were less receptive to Barack Obama in 2008. Racial context is found to structure white voters' evaluations of Obama and, thus, affect where the Democrats gained presidential vote share over 2004. The overall Democratic swing was lower in states where a white Democrat (Hillary Clinton) had more appeal to white voters than Obama. Obama increased the Democrats' share of the white vote, but gains were associated with positive evaluations of Obama among white voters in places with smaller African American populations. The likelihood that a white voter supported Obama also decreased as the African American population of the respondent's congressional district increased. The results are relevant to discussions of the future of the Voting Rights Act and to conceptions of a "postracial" America.

Keywords

presidential elections, voting, race

The presidential candidacy and election of Barack Obama produced many intriguing claims about the place of race in American politics. Prominent among these was the idea that Obama's election constituted a shift to a "postracial" era where race plays little role in the electoral prospects of African American candidates. There are theoretical and empirical reasons for questioning this assumption, and the 2008 presidential election presents a unique opportunity to test how race affected support for an African American candidate in a majority white electoral setting. That election also provides an opportunity to test how white voters responded when presented with the choice between a white and a black candidate as the potential Democratic nominee. This article illustrates that there was something specific about the relationship between a state's racial context and Obama's appeal relative to Hillary Clinton that structured where the Democrats gained or lost vote share from 2004 to 2008. Racial context may have structured whites' attitudes about Obama relative to Clinton, and state-level distributions of these attitudes affected how much better (or worse) the 2008 Democratic candidate did relative to the 2004 Democratic candidate. Analysis of survey data also demonstrate that the racial context of congressional districts may have conditioned whether white voters supported Obama or John McCain.

Candidate Race, State Racial Context, and Voting

Social science has demonstrated that African American candidates often receive a small fraction of the white vote (Reeves 1997), particularly in the American South (Davidson and Grofman 1994). Experimental research demonstrates that racial animus on the part of some whites operates independently of political considerations in candidate evaluations (Reeves 1997, 89) and that for some whites the mere mention of racial policies can aggravate preexisting negative stereotypes of blacks1 (Sniderman and Piazza 1993, 104; see also Heerwig and McCabe 2007). Racial attitudes, moreover, have been shown to affect voter choice between white presidential candidates (Kinder and Sanders 1996; Mendelberg 2001).

Although there are prominent examples of African American candidates winning in electorates that are majority white,2 such cases have been relatively rare (Grofman, Handley, and Niemi 1992, 134). The history of race and voting in the South demonstrates particularly high levels of racially polarized voting (Lublin 1997a; Davidson and Grofman 1994; Engstrom and McDonald 1981). This causes African American candidates to depend heavily on support from African American voters in majority (or near-majority) minority districts to win elections (Lublin 1997b). There is general consensus in this literature that a substantial proportion of whites, particularly in the South, have a low probability of supporting African American candidates (Lublin 1999; Cameron, Epstein, and O'Halloran 1996; Swain 1993; Brace et al. …

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