Racial Attitudes Remain a Powerful Predictor of Obama Vote Preference

Several recent studies by political scientists show racial and ethnocentric attitudes were not only strongly related to 2008 voting behavior, but that these attitudes had a much larger influence on that year’s presidential race than they had on the all-white presidential contests of the past (see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).  The studies referenced measure anti-black predispositions in a variety of ways, with “racial resentment” perhaps the most potent predictor of opposition to Obama’s candidacy.  Interestingly enough, this measure of racial conservatism closely mirrors the content of last week’s heated debate exchange between Juan Williams and Newt Gingrich, presenting respondents with agree/disagree statements like: “It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” 

Nevertheless, you might suspect that racial resentment would not have the same influence on presidential voting in 2012 that it had in 2008.  After all, Obama now has a well-established record in office.  Voters’ racial considerations could be completely subsumed, then, by performance factors like the president’s stewardship of the economy.  Previous research would support that contention too.  In fact, race became a less important factor in many black mayors’ reelection contests after they established records in office that allayed white fears of black favoritism (see: here).   

Yet despite the Obama administration’s race neutral agenda over the last three years, four nationally representative surveys conducted in the last nine months—two by YouGov and two commissioned by the American National Election Study—suggest that racial resentment will be just as strong, if not a stronger, determinant of opposition to Obama in 2012.  Indeed, the figure below shows that the most racially resentful were roughly 70 percentage points less supportive of Obama’s reelection than racially sympathetic whites, even after controlling for the fact that Republicans and conservatives are more likely to score high on racial resentment in the first place. 


To be sure, racial resentment could become less important as we head into the fall campaign.  It seems much more likely, though, that the profound symbolism surrounding Obama’s position as the first black president will make racial attitudes a central component of presidential evaluations throughout his tenure in office.  And with racial resentment such a persistent and powerful predictor of opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency, it is not too surprising that Newt Gingrich saw an immediate surge in support among Republicans after reiterating that African-Americans "should demand jobs, not food stamps."