Racial Voting in 2012?

May 02, 2012, 8:32 PM GMT+0

After the 2008 presidential election, we published an article with evidence that Barack Obama’s margin of victory was reduced by racially intolerant voters. In particular, we found that the negative effects of economic decline on support for the party in power (the Republicans) were blunted by racial attitudes, which saw Obama as favoring blacks. Now that Americans have experienced three and a half years under Obama's leadership, how will Obama's race influence economic voting (the degree to which people vote based on economic conditions) in the 2012 election? To examine this question we use data from a March 17-20 survey by YouGov.

The survey questions of interest to us here are:

  • Which of the following groups in society have been favored during Barack Obama's time as President? Men; Women; Blacks; The working class; The middle class; The rich; Muslims; Immigrants; Corporations and lobbyists
  • Would you say that over the past year the nation's economy has...Gotten much better, Gotten better, Stayed about the same, Gotten worse, or Gotten much worse.

Results show that 31% of respondents felt blacks were very favored during Obama’s administration, 26% felt they were somewhat favored, 25% felt they were not favored, and 17% weren’t sure. Thus, a total of 57% of respondents believe that blacks were either very or somewhat favored by Obama during his first term. This is almost exactly the percent of respondents in 2008 who believed that blacks would be favored by an Obama administration.

Our analysis here is framed by a widely-accepted view that voters typically punish incumbents for bad economic conditions and reward them for good economic conditions. Current perceptions of the economic situation are not very good. Only thirty-three percent of respondents believe the economy is much better or better than one year ago, 27 percent believe it is about the same, and 40 percent answered that it is worse (see row 1 of the table below). More importantly, we continue to see evidence of economic voting for the 2012 election. As perceptions of the economy worsen, vote intention for Obama drops off dramatically (see row 2 of the table below). Among those who believe that the economy is better, 79 percent plan on voting for Obama. But among those who perceive the economy as worse, only 14 percent plan on voting for Obama.

Economic Perceptions and Voting Intentions for Obama in 2012


Perception of economy




% vote for Obama




Number of respondents




We found that in the 2008 election, racial voting prevented Obama from winning in a landslide by muting economic voting. Here we present evidence that racial voting will continue to impact economic voting for Obama in 2012. In the next table (below), we present results of economic voting for Obama among three groups—those who believe blacks were very favored by Obama, somewhat favored by Obama, and not favored by Obama. In all three groups, there is strong evidence of economic voting, which means that the better respondents see the economy, the more likely they are to vote for Obama. Economic voting is weakest among those who believe blacks have been very favored by Obama. The level of support for Obama among racially motivated voters who believe the economy is better is 58 percent, which is much lower than the 88 percent of racially tolerant voters who believe the economy is better. Obama is faring worst among racially motivated voters who think the economy is doing worse than one year ago (four percent support), and faring best among racially tolerant voters who see the economy as better than one year ago (88 percent support). In 2008 racially biased voting cost Obama a landslide victory. Now in 2012, it may cost him reelection.

Racial Attitudes, Economic Perceptions, and Voting Intentions for Obama in 2012
Economic Perceptions
Blacks very favored58%33%4%
Blacks somewhat favored76%31%19%
Blacks not favored88%59%22%