Symbolic Racism and Emotional Responses to the 2012 Presidential Candidates

By Redlawsk, David P.; Tolbert, Caroline J. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Symbolic Racism and Emotional Responses to the 2012 Presidential Candidates


Redlawsk, David P., Tolbert, Caroline J., McNeely, Natasha Altema, Political Research Quarterly


Despite the apparent failure of the election of U.S. President Barack Obama to usher in a post-racial America, his re-election in 2012 might suggest that race is not the political barrier it once was in American politics. After all, Obama overcame all manner of vicious attacks ques- tioning every aspect of his Americanism to win by a con- vincing margin. Still, even if Obama's election and re-election represent a turning point in American politics (and it is unclear if they do), it is far too early to say that race is no longer a factor in American elections. Race remains an important undercurrent of American life, including in electoral politics.

An extensive literature on race and American politics has led to symbolic racism as the dominant explanation of racial attitudes about African American candidates and policy benefiting blacks (Kinder and Sears 1981; Sears 1988, see also Sears, Sidanius, and Bobo 2000, Henry and Sears, 2002, Sears and Henry 2005; Sears and Kinder 1971). Symbolic racism describes the belief that African Americans can get ahead without the aid of government programs such as affirmative action, as previous ethnic immigrants to America have done. Despite Obama's elec- tion-or perhaps because of it-symbolic racism may be becoming more, not less important in the twenty-first century (Tesler and Sears 2010). While the concept of symbolic racism has not found universal support (see Sniderman, Crosby, and Howell 2000; Sniderman and Tetlock 1986 for some critiques), it has become widely used in studies on race in politics.

In this article, we argue that the effect of symbolic racism as currently understood is missing an important element-emotion-especially when considering candi- date evaluation. While the literature recognizes that racial attitudes have affective underpinnings, it generally has not directly considered the role of emotion in candi- date evaluation. Emotional responses to politics and politicians provide independent bases of candidate eval- uation and when combined with symbolic racism better explain the evaluation of African American candidates in a process we call "emotive racism." Emotion can work in both positive and negative ways. Feelings of hope, pride, and enthusiasm may reduce the effects of racial conservatism, and feelings of fear, anxiety, and anger may increase them.

While for the most part the literature on race and poli- tics has not usually considered emotional responses while also measuring attitudes toward race, Banks and Valentino (2012) are a recent exception, as they examine emotions and symbolic racism (as well as old-fashioned racism and race-neutral values). They find that anger appears to be the motivating negative emotion in symbolic racism, rather than disgust, thus giving us a much clearer under- standing of emotional antecedents of symbolic racism, something David Sears (1988) argued was important but difficult to disentangle and measure empirically. But Banks and Valentino do not address the role of emotion in the other direction, that is, how symbolic racism and emotional responses to candidates combine to influence candidate evaluation when an African American candi- date is on the ballot. That is our task here.

The election of Barack Obama and his re-election brought a new awareness of the interplay of race and poli- tics. For scholars interested in race, these elections offer a unique opportunity to study public opinion toward black versus white presidential candidates. We use results from two 2012 national election surveys to examine how emo- tions and racial attitudes informed support for Obama. We then briefly compare these results with analyses based on survey data from 2008.

Our findings show that emotions generated by candi- date campaigns have distinct and important implications for shaping evaluations of both minority and white candi- dates when they are competing for the same office. Emotions triggered during the campaign can moderate the underlying and presumably more stable racial atti- tudes measured by symbolic racism. …

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