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Obama's race not a factor in election, say economists

| 12 February 2009

Reinforcing the notion of a "post racial" nation, two University of California, Berkeley, researchers' analysis of voting patterns indicates that voters were not motivated by race in the 2008 U.S. election of Barack Obama, the country's first black president.

Enrico Moretti, a UC Berkeley professor of economics, and Alexandre Mas, an associate professor in the economic policy and analysis group at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, presented their research findings on race and the campaign for the Oval Office at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in San Francisco in January. Their report, "Racial Bias in the 2008 Presidential Election," will be published in a forthcoming edition of the association's journal American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings.

"Our research doesn't support the idea that race is not an issue in other dimensions, or other elections," Moretti said. "But for the most important election of all - the presidential election - the race of the candidate didn't seem to play a role one way or the other."

Despite pre-election handwringing by reporters, pundits and others about whether white voters could or would cast their ballots to make an African American candidate the country's commander-in-chief, "the average guy in the street didn't really agree with that," said Moretti. "The winning performance of Obama wasn't associated with racial attitude in America."

He said that he and Mas were intrigued by the discussions around a color-coded map that ran on the front page of the New York Times the day after the election, that depicted states (many of them on the East and West coasts) that supported Obama in blue and states (many in the South and Midwest) that went for Republican Sen. John McCain in red.

"If you looked at the map, read the blogs and listened to the pundits, the states where Obama underperformed looked more stereotypically racially biased," said Moretti. "But it's not that simple. Do a little more analysis and control properly, and it turns out that's not the case."

Moretti and Mas analyzed voter support for Republican or Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and for the presidency in both 2004 and in 2008. Then, they compared the results with a National Science Foundation-financed, state-by-state General Social Survey of whites' attitudes in some 3,100 counties across the country toward laws against banning interracial marriage, and whether whites have a right to segregated neighborhoods or to not sell homes to blacks.

The Democratic vote share in the presidential election increased about 5percent between 2004 and 2008, although it was relatively smaller in Appalachia and in some Southern states, while the increased voter support for the Obama-Biden ticket was about 1 percent less than Democratic candidates for House seats.

But Moretti and Mas said the real racial bias would be evidenced by Democratic congressional candidates doing better than Obama in areas where voters are more racist, according to the General Social Survey. That didn't happen.

Overall, the researchers found little evidence of higher voter turnout rates among the white electorate in areas reporting higher racial bias. While there was a slight increase in Obama's relative decline in votes in states in the top one-third for racial bias, the difference was not statistically significant, they reported.

The overall voting picture showed that older voters - a block that tends to be less racially tolerant than younger voters - turned out in substantially lower numbers in 2008 than in '04. "It's kind of an optimistic finding," Moretti said. "It means that as time goes by, we probably will find less and less bias, as today's younger, less biased voters move into middle age and beyond."

A native of Italy, Moretti said he is curious about American media and politics and the historic 2008 presidential race, in particular. "What I found remarkable throughout the campaign was that although the media were very focused on trying to find a racial angle, the campaigns themselves and the American people weren't very focused on the racial aspect," he said.

Data about racial attitudes were found in the General Social Survey, which since 1972 has conducted scientific research on demographic behavior to monitor social change in the United States and compare it to other countries. The survey is funded by the Sociology Program of the National Science Foundation.

The highest scoring states in terms of racial bias were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming. The lowest were Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Iowa, Massachusetts, North Dakota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.