New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait argues in a piece for the magazine’s cover this week that “race has been the real story of the Obama presidency all along,” detailing how conservative opposition to the president has been driven by race, and the president’s supporters in turn have frequently cast Republicans as not only conservative, but racist.
The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a seminal piece two years ago arguing race was the unspoken factor that affected nearly every move the president made, while other writers, such as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, argue Chait didn’t go far enough in describing the challenges black Americans have faced during the tenure of the first black president, from a housing crisis to the widespread adoption of voter ID laws.
Exactly how much of opposition to Obama is based on race? Interestingly, now in year six of the Obama administration, a number of political scientists and researchers have examined this question.
Here’s what they have found:
1. A number of studies and polls have shown some people don’t like Obama and his policies in part because he is black
Most pollsters and political scientists haven’t directly asked Obama detractors if their opposition is principally racial. That question, researchers would tell you, both allows for respondents to lie but more importantly does not assess more unconscious racial biases people don’t realize they have.
Instead, researchers have used proxies for this question, and the answers have been revealing.
In 2008, voters were asked in exit polls conducted by the major television networks and the Associated Press about how big a factor race was in their vote. They had four choices: “not a factor,” “minor factor,” “important factor” or “most important factor.”
This was fairly direct way of asking about racial views. You would think most people would say “not a factor,” except perhaps black voters and others who were tapping Obama in part because they wanted to make history by electing the first black president.
You would be wrong. One of the most telling results was in West Virginia’s Democratic primary, where more than 20 percent of voters in the May 2008 contest said race was an “important factor” in their vote, and more than 80 percent of that bloc backed Hillary Clinton over Obama. States like Kentucky had similar results, with white voters saying race was important to them and picking Clinton over Obama.
On Election Day in 2008, about 7 percent of white voters said race was an important factor, and John McCain won about two thirds of this vote, according to the Pew Research Center.
But that’s a small pocket of the electorate saying something very direct about racial voting. (This question was not asked on the exit poll in 2012.)
A number of other researchers have looked at race and Obama by assessing what is called “racial resentment.” Essentially, instead of asking “do you like black or Latino people,” a question unlikely to draw a candid answer from a person who does not, these kinds of surveys ask questions like “do you or disagree with the statement that ‘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.’”
Academics then try to assess if racial resentment alone, measured by responses to those questions, can predict a person’s perceptions of Obama, even controlling for partisanship and other factors.
Using this racial resentment data, Michael Tesler, a Brown University political scientist, argues two kinds of voters are increasingly prominent in the Obama era: “racial liberals” and “racial conservatives.” For these blocs, even non-racial issues like the economy take on a racial cast once Obama declares his position on them, according to Tesler. People who score high on racial resentment, even controlling for other factors, will oppose something they might have previously supported, once Obama is for it.
Racial liberals, on the other hand, will start backing something once Obama does, the most obvious example being the surge in black support for gay marriage after the president embraced same-sex unions in 2012.
Using a similar method of looking at racial resentment, Brian Schaffner, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, estimated racism cost Obama about 3 percent of the white vote in 2008.
A more controversial method of answering this question of Obama and race is used by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist who recently finished getting his doctorate from Harvard and now works at Google as a “data scientist” and writes columns for the New York Times. He analyzed Google searches for racial terms like “ni**er” and found Obama underperformed in 2008 in areas where those kinds of words were most often searched. (”Ni**er,” according to Stephens-Davidowitz, is searched on Google as often as terms like “Daily Show” and “Lakers.” )
His analysis showed, yes that state again, West Virginia had the highest rate of racialized searches, with Mississippi also near the top.
There is intense debate among political scientists over both Tesler and Stephens-Davidowitz’s methods. Some scholars say racial prejudice has actually declined in the Obama era.
But the scholars are largely debating how much Obama’s race drives the opposition to him, conceding at least some of that animus exists.
2. Okay, so some people, particularly in West Virginia, may not like having a black president and that took some votes from Obama. But is this really what is driving most of the opposition to Obama?
This is where things get murkier. When people talk about opposition to Obama, they are really talking about three distinct, although related questions. Are Americans voting against Obama because he is black? Do they believe falsehoods about Obama (like he is a Muslim) and make disdainful comments about him because of race? And is the stalemate in Washington, where everything Obama proposes is blocked by Republicans, a result of racism?
Much of the academic scholarship has focused on electoral behavior, because there is clearer data in this realm.
But in part because Obama won both in 2008 and 2012, his supporters aren’t actually too obsessed with the electoral question. They are instead fixated on the mean language and the obstruction he faces. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times editorial page editor, for example both have hinted that racial bias drives some of ardent opposition to Republicans in Washington.
“And I hope, I hope — and I say this seriously — I hope that’s based on substance and not the fact that he’s African-American,” Reid said in an interview with a Las Vegas radio station in explaining conservative opposition to Obama in Congress.
He added, “My counterpart, Mitch McConnell, said at the beginning of the presidency of Barack Obama that he had one goal — and that is to defeat Obama and make sure he wasn’t re-elected. And that’s how they legislate in the Senate. It was really bad. And we’re now seven months into this second term of the president’s and they haven’t changed much.”
Obviously, we don’t have access to the Google searches or the racial resentment scores of members of Congress. Republicans strongly reject the racism charge. And Republican politicians have to respond to their constituents, so if some conservatives have anti-Obama views based on race, this will impact Republican politicians and force them to the political right, even if they are not aware of this race-based pull.
That said, Republican obstruction in Congress alone is not persuasive evidence of racism. McConnell’s statement, that his goal was to ensure Obama only had one term, was in many ways an “honest gaffe” — the senator told a truth that was impolitic. Republicans in both the House and the Senate, in the early days of 2009, decided one of the ways to weaken President Obama and prevent him from getting a second term was to deny him any bipartisan victories.
This was not an unusual or particularly conservative tactic. Back in 2006, Nancy Pelosi, then (like now) leader of Democrats in the minority of the House of Representatives, urged her members not to work with Republicans or George W. Bush on major legislation and potentially make the GOP more popular, since the Democrats saw an opportunity to win the House that fall.
House Republicans organized to make sure no member backed the economic stimulus in 2009, McConnell ensured no Republican supported the health care bill in the Senate later that year. This was a smart political strategy, and it many ways worked: Republicans gained control of the House in 2010 and effectively stopped Obama from legislating thereafter.
This wasn’t a strategy hatched to stop a black president. It was a strategy to stop a president of the opposite party. No Republican voted for Bill Clinton’s economic plan in 1993, and the GOP campaigned against him and won control of Congress in 1994. Much of the Washington obstruction to Obama is just a more effective version of what Republicans did in the Clinton era: endless numbers of hearings and use of procedural moves to stall confirmations and legislation and embarrass the Democratic president.