Obama wins — Have political scientists screwed up again?


“What, if anything, in political science research on race (broadly defined, to include ethnicity, perhaps other group identities…) would have led us to expect Obama’s electoral victory, either in the Democratic primary or in the general election?”

I raise that question on behalf of sometime “Monkey Cage” denizen Jennifer Hochschild, who continues:

“I come to this question after catching up over Christmas vacation on a lot of journal reading, almost none of which would lead one to predict that voters in Iowa etc. would support a black man with the middle name of Hussein for president, especially over a Clinton and/or a war hero. So have we political scientists screwed up again in our ability to understand and analyze contemporary politics? (I remember a colleague publishing an excellent book on the political future of East Germany about 3 months before that nation disappeared). If not, what success can we claim for ourselves—not so much in forecasting or predicting per se, but in explaining what has changed in American society such that an electoral victory that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago actually occurred?”

Okay, “Monkey Cage” readers… How would you respond to Jennifer’s question?

29 Responses to Obama wins — Have political scientists screwed up again?

  1. Kevin January 25, 2009 at 8:26 pm #

    Whether or not you think political scientists screwed up depends entirely on which political scientists you’re talking about. As much as the general election seems to support the “campaigns reveal history,” with a Democratic victory strongly predicted by the fundamentals, the Democratic primary campaign seems to support the “campaigns make history” side of the long running debate over the importance of campaigns to electoral outcomes. Obama made superior strategic decisions to Clinton in terms of allocating resources in caucus vs. non-caucus states, and he won more delegates as a result.

    That said, the primary campaign largely conformed to the widely accepted existing literature on presidential primaries. As the challenger candidate won early primaries, the perception that the challenger candidate was viable became more widespread, and that challenger gained among natural constituencies who had been supporting other candidates. As the campaign extended into rust-belt states, candidates shifted their platforms on issues like trade policy. Also, I imagine V.O. Key would have been very unsurprised to see that white support for Obama was lowest in areas with the highest concentration of African-Americans.

    So which political scientists screwed up exactly? Which theories about American politics were disproved? That Midwestern Democrats or Democrats in heavily white states wouldn’t vote for a black candidate? Michigan went for Jackson in 1988, as did Delaware and Vermont. Were we supposed to expect that Iowa caucus would support the front runner? Try Carter in 1972. That campaigns always choose optimal strategies based on perfect information? Well, some model assumptions will always be untenable.

    But overall, there seems little in this election to support the statement that “political scientists screwed up again in our ability to understand and analyze contemporary politics.” After all, some of us predicted the nominees and general election outcome a long while back.

  2. Paul Gowder January 25, 2009 at 8:28 pm #

    I don’t know jack all about primaries, but surely all the models called it right for the general? I mean, the relationship between economic conditions and election results is so strong…

  3. Lee Sigelman January 25, 2009 at 8:47 pm #

    Kevin and Paul:

    Yes, of course, most of the statistical forecasting models came close to getting the vote margins right. But that’s not what Jennifer is asking about. And she didn’t ask whether ALL political scientists failed to anticipate such outcomes. She asked specifically about what in the political science literature of race/ethnic relations would have led one to anticipate the victory of an African-American (especially one thought by many to be an Arab) over, first, a Clinton and, second, a war hero. Your posts provide good answers to a different set of questions.

  4. Paul Gowder January 25, 2009 at 9:09 pm #

    Hmm… but that question seems badly posed. It’s not the job of the literature on race/ethnic relations to predict elections. Putting that demand on that literature is silly, because there are many more causal influences on an election result than the race of the candidates. Perhaps if Obama were white, his margin would have been even larger…

  5. Lee Sigelman January 25, 2009 at 10:19 pm #

    Paul: Step back a little from the idea of “election prediction” and ask yourself what in the race/ethnic relations literature would have led one to believe that an African American thought by many to be an Arab could win a presidential election.

  6. Seth January 26, 2009 at 12:14 am #

    I don’t think a review of the race/ethnic relations literature from ten or twenty years ago would have led one to the conclusion that an African American would never be elected president, just that an African American candidate would, all else being equal, have a harder time doing it than one of European descent would. I think that’s still true.

    Obama’s election was a pretty amazing achievement, but I’m not sure whose work it disproved.

  7. Anonymous Coward January 26, 2009 at 12:32 am #

    I don’t know if there’s anything specifically in the literature on race or ethnic relations that would make one believe it.

    The literature on retrospection, on the other hand, makes it plain that a sitting president can screw things up so badly that the country will elect whoever the opposition party nominates… even if he’s black. Just google for “voting for the nigger” for examples from real-life apparent racists.

    And Obama’s nomination shouldn’t be that surprising given the differences between primary and general electorates, nearly monolithic black support for Obama, and the shift of the Democrats away from the southern whites who would have vigorously opposed him.

    what has changed in American society such that an electoral victory that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago actually occurred?

    What changed was having the Worst. President. EVAR. hanging around the Republicans’ neck. Oh yeah, and a series of sex scandals. Oh yeah, and an ongoing series of corruption scandals. Oh yeah, and the sudden collapse of the economy on a scale that very few voters had ever seen, so that all of a sudden hardly anybody cared about the Republican fear-mongering of the past eight years.

    If anything, what the race literature can point to is this is what it took to get a black man elected — the most unpopular president since we’ve been keeping track of it, and the worst economic performance in decades, and a hugely unpopular war. And even then, we elected the son of an African, not the son of an African-American.

  8. Paul Gowder January 26, 2009 at 5:25 am #

    Hmm… following that cognitive procedure, isn’t Seth pretty much right?

    I’m not super-familiar with the race literature, but what familiarity I have doesn’t lead me to think that they contain many incredibly strong claims on the order of “it’s impossible for a black man to get elected president [with large margins].”

    It would have been irresponsible to make such claims, for, I think, just the reason I identified before, namely that race scholars aren’t in the business of saying who can win elections, they’re in the business of capturing things like the attitudes of Americans toward black people. But it’s far from obvious that any claims about the existence of racism or negative attitudes that Americans hold toward black people would be disconfirmed by an election where a black man becomes president, in the context of all of the other causal factors at play.

    Certainly the posterior probability of some of the claims in the race literature goes down a little given that a black man is now president… but by how much?

  9. Doug Hess January 26, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    “not so much in forecasting or predicting per se, but in explaining what has changed in American society such that an electoral victory that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago actually occurred”

    Given that part of her quote, it seems clear that she isn’t talking about prediction models; so, the question is not be “what did Obama’s election disprove” but what was poli sci “not saying,” if you see what I mean.

  10. Hans Noel January 26, 2009 at 10:16 am #

    One thing worth noting is that there are two questions here: How did he win the nomination, and how did he win the general. On both, I think political science is talking about the right issues.

    On the first, interpreting the forecasting models suggests that personal racial affect, in 2008 at least, does not trump economic and retrospective concerns in the aggregate, as Seth and Paul are saying. Moreover, there is a literature here from the race and ethic politics scholars (defined descriptively). Wasn’t all that work on the Bradley effect in part about these processes? So see Berinsky or Hopkins …


    On the nomination, it’s more complicated, but I might speculate. Within the Democratic Party, being black (or being a woman) is, at least for some nominators, a plus. There are a lot of white liberals who are very excited to have just made history. This is not to say there were no Democratic voters in any state who wouldn’t have voted for Obama because he was black. But among the highly informed, highly partisan, highly ideological voters who participate in caucuses and primaries, there are a lot of the former. The political science literature on this sort of phenomenon is not extensive, but it’s not completely foreign. Some of the more popular stuff Melissa Harris-Lacewell has been saying in along these lines.

    Relatedly, remember that Obama did not “win” Iowa. He got 38% of the vote, and a proportional number of delegates. Clinton and Edwards, together, got 59% of the vote (also getting delegates). The race literature would explain exactly this sort of outcome. As much as I don’t want to admit it, Polsby’s explanation then goes a long way: Factional early victories are a recipe for nomination success.

    So, what political science says is that there isn’t that much unusual about Obama’s victory.

  11. JMA January 26, 2009 at 10:37 am #

    How about that research showing that whites holding negative racial stereotypes don’t use them when the target (in this case Obama) does not fit the stereotype? Hurwitz and Peffley, late 1990s AJPS. It’s not specific to elections, but may apply.

  12. TGGP January 26, 2009 at 11:17 am #

    I think poli-sci would have predicted a victory in the general based on those famed “fundamentals”. As for lily-white Iowa:

  13. Jim Gimpel January 26, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    Maybe we should reexamine our reasons for believing that Iowans would NOT support Obama. That’s the real question. Why is there this expression of social science surprise?

    The assumption that they would not, is clear indication of the operation of a naive rural stereotype, a prevalent anti-rural bias, that many social scientists carry around in their heads.

    Rural is associated with backward, unprogressive, redneck, racist, dumb, and any number of related images. I suspect that if social scientists ever got up the courage to venture out a bit, and to actually study the rural population, they would find it to be a lot more mixed. But don’t hold your breath on them getting out of their comfort zone.

  14. Jennifer Hochschild January 26, 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    This is fascinating. Maybe I hang around too much (at least for present purposes) with the race and politics crowd, but I don’t think many scholars who focus on issues of racial and ethnic politics, racial attitudes and behavior, or much of anything in the field of group relations would have said something like, “of course, we should expect people in predominantly white states to support the Democratic candidate in the general election, or the frontrunner in the primaries, regardless of his/her identity, given the conditions of this particular election.” (I also don’t think that scholars of gender would have uttered the parallel sentence had Hilary Clinton played the role that Obama did in the recent election.)

    So maybe race scholars have been a tad pessimistic or cynical over the past few years, and not seen the genuine transformation in American attitudes such that in a “Democratic year,” the race/ethnicity/gender of the candidate no longer matters. Nevertheless, I’m a bit struck by what seems a little naive in some (although clearly not all) of the comments so far — to caricature them, “What are you surprised at, Jennifer? Why should you think that race makes a difference any longer in American electoral politics, anyway?” Surely that isn’t sufficient either. All those people with tears on their faces in Grant Park or the Washington Mall were noticing something different, which the standard forecasting models just don’t speak to.

    More comments, please; I’m learning a lot from this discussion. best, JH

  15. Jason McDaniel January 26, 2009 at 2:42 pm #

    I agree with the general thrust of Prof Gimpel’s point: perhaps the result indicates that we did not know as much about Iowa voters as we thought.

    Some work by political scientists that study the contextual effects of race/ethnicity on racial attitudes and voting behavior has shown that white voters who live in homogenous racial environments may be more open to supporting a minority candidate than voters who live in more contentious / heterogenous environments. Most of this work is at the local / urban level though.

    I do think its possible that ideology mattered … Obama was perceived to be more ideologically liberal than Clinton. Which may lead to the research on conflation of racial attitudes and ideology … being African-American may lead to perceptions of being more liberal.

  16. John Transue January 26, 2009 at 2:53 pm #

    I don’t want to unduly toot my own horn, but I have been trying to make the point that appealing to American national identity can transcend racial boundaries. I haven’t yet tested this claim in the context of elections, but my article in the AJPS and my dissertation were about how superordinate (broad) identities can neutralize the race card’s ability to trump everything else in regards to policy attitudes. In the dissertation I wrote a bit about why I think identity mechanisms would “work” better than other tactics social scientists and others have proposed like combatting stereotypes, naive applications of the contact hypothesis, individuation, etc.

    Subjectively, I have felt that Obama has been doing what I thought would work, especiallly the 2004 convention speech and his Wright speech. Again and again, I saw Obama pushing a theme of shared identity rather than “them” against “us.” He had several opportunities to frame disputes as racists versus non-racists. Some of his supporters used that narrative, but I never saw him or the official campaign take that approach.

    Here’s a link to the article in AJPS and the abstract is at the bottom of this post:

    Link to Identity Salience, Identity Acceptance, and Racial Policy Attitudes: American National Identity as a Uniting Force

    On the subject of identity, the Huddy and Khatib article that is just before mine in AJPS shows how the type of American identity that I focused on can translate to turnout (at least self-reported).

    Also, Tali Mendelberg’s book _The Race Card_ talks about how the US has a norm of racial equality now instead of its previous norm of racial inequality, and talks a bit about how that can influence politics.

    Political science has paid a great deal of attention to sources of intergroup conflict, but the discipline has focused less on forces that bring people together and lead them to transcend group boundaries. This study presents evidence that attachment to a shared superordinate identity can improve intergroup relations by reducing the social distance between people of different racial groups. Using a survey experiment, this research shows that making a superordinate identity salient increased support for a tax increase. The effects of the identity salience treatment are compared to a policy particularism treatment in terms of effect size and their interaction with each other. The size and direction of the identity salience effect is affected by the degree of respondents’ acceptance of the proffered identity. Implications for social identity theory, racial policy attitudes, and American national identity are discussed.

  17. Hans Noel January 26, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    It may be that all the people in Grant Park were also noticing something that was not there. Race mattered in this election, and it matters in American life. And Obama’s election did not change that. It’s a milestone, but I think the takeaway from the research is not that race no longer matters, or even that it no longer matters as much as it once did, but that other things matter a lot.

  18. Matt Jarvis January 26, 2009 at 3:14 pm #

    I think the expectations (of Obama doing worse) are understandable, but that the result conformed to what we know about elections. Let’s consider a few reasonable expectations….

    1) Obama can’t win the primary due to his race juxtaposed against lily-white IA & NH. A fairly reasonable assumption, on its face. However, Obama had 3 major factors in his favor that helped him overcome his race. First, it’s hard to argue that journalists didn’t favor Obama (and I tend to argue against media bias claims). Second, his major competitor was female, so that brings gender dynamics in to play. Perhaps Obama couldn’t have won the nomination against a white male? (Given how close they were, who knows?) Finally, HRC’s inabilty to navigate past her pro-Iraq stance hurt a lot. In a sense, these things are unique. However, let us take Jim’s comment to heart. Perhaps we don’t understand rural folks as well as we might. But, the race vs gender thing comes back to me here. I’ve been wondering about the “stickiness” of negative stereotypes of others (race or gender) and if that depends on exposure. A racial stereotype based on very little exposure to blacks might be lessened by meeting a charismatic Obama. However, a gender stereotype might be “stickier” because every person has a great deal of experience with the other gender. (I saw something on this last year, but I forget who/what/where). I’m not a race, gender, or rural expert (or even a novice), but I wonder if that has any explanatory power? Someone who knows a lot more about these topics should feel free to correct me…I’m out of my element here.

    2) Obama couldn’t win the general, due to losing the “racist” vote. (I put “racist” in quotes to both avoid calling those who disagree with Obama racists and to allow the category to expand to include those who might just not be “comfortable” voting for an African-American. This claim could cut two ways, but neither materialized greatly. The first way, having to do with the geographical distribution of “racists” ends up not mattering for the Electoral College: the only places Obama did worse than Kerry were in that stretch from AR through the deep inland South. However, the second way, it seems, should have been there. If there are people who would vote for a white Democrat but not a black one, then his vote share should have been lower than the models predicted…an omitted variable bias, if you will. Some models did predict a higher vote share, but others predicted lower. So, the extent to which that exists is unclear.

    In sum, I think Jennifer’s base question is a good one. More importantly, I don’t think it can be answered by a simple regression on NES data. I think there are a lot of moving parts to this. It’s a serious question: Sherlock Holmes solved a case by noting the dog that did not bark.

  19. Jim Gimpel January 26, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    Isn’t there a strand of this race-ethnic politics research that has found a measure of ambivalence in the racial attitudes of whites (and others)?

    I gather that what ‘ambivalence’ means is that racial attitudes and race-based evaluations of candidates are highly conditional. They depend upon context, frames, and related ecological factors.

    So white people don’t go around reflexively thinking ill of every black person or black candidate they meet, I gather. But these negative impressions must be stirred-up by something more.

    Anyway, that’s been my read of this one branch of the lit.

    There is some tendency, perhaps, to overstate findings on racism, and any number of other subjects, perhaps for a variety of reasons. We want to believe certain things are true, even if they’re not. And sometimes it makes it easier to get our work published if the results are clear-cut and pointed, rather than nuanced and subtle.

  20. Anonymous Coward January 26, 2009 at 4:35 pm #

    “What are you surprised at, Jennifer? Why should you think that race makes a difference any longer in American electoral politics, anyway?”

    I don’t think anyone here thinks that race doesn’t matter in electoral politics.

    I at least was trying to make the point, I think echoing Seth, that things were already very bad for the Republicans, and by the time we got to the election things were so bad that the negative effect of being black wasn’t large enough to counteract the ginormous forces pushing for a Democratic victory last November.

    I don’t know how big an electoral hit a national politician takes for being black. I’m sure there is one. All the last election tells us is that however big it is, it’s smaller than confluence of major events that made a Republican nigh-unelectable this year. Which doesn’t tell me much, just like knowing that a mystery animal is smaller than Seismosaurus doesn’t tell me much.

  21. Tony Broh January 26, 2009 at 4:43 pm #

    Well, I made these points in 1987 from content analysis of TV coverage about Jesse Jackson.


    First, black candidates for the presidency will have to overcome media stereotypes….
    Second, black candidates for the presidency will have to develop a strategy for receiving support from black leaders who are unpopular with white moderates….
    Third, although gaffes and blunders are a danger in any campaign, they are particularly destructive in a campaign that initially seems to lack widespread popular support….
    Fourth, deteriorating relations with Jewish leaders present a continuing problem for black presidential candidates. Quite simply, both groups are essential to a Democratic victory….
    Perhaps the only black candidate able to break the cycle will be someone who has regular party credentials and is not suspect as a “black” candidate.

  22. Michael Jones-Correa January 26, 2009 at 11:15 pm #

    Perhaps the race/ethnic politics literature would not have predicted that a candidate like Obama could win the presidency, but that is in part because a) the social sciences are better at explanations than predictions and b) presidential elections are all, to some extent, unique, and hence somewhat unpredictable, except in their broad outlines (i.e. that 2008 was a likely Democratic year, due to the circumstances of the economy and other factors), and c) individuals who break new ground are by definition unique, and hence difficult to predict. Would political scientists have predicted Kennedy in 1960?

    For me the question is less whether we should have predicted Obama, but whether Obama says something about the electibility of other African-American (and other non-white) candidates at the state or national level. Is Obama a trend-setter or an outlier?

    How the election is interpreted may have consequences — for instance, Obama’s election may affect the Supreme Court’s review of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. If the Court sees the election as a harbinger of things to come, they may be more sympathetic to striking down Section 5.

    They might want to keep in mind, however, that although JFK was elected in 1960, there hasn’t been a Catholic elected to the presidency since (or any non-Protestant), and that although Obama was elected by a majority of the popular vote and electoral college, that in many of the areas covered by Section 5 the vote was as racially polarized as it has ever been.

    For social scientists to be able to predict Obama’s election would have required that that his election be part of a pattern, not (simply) unique. Though there have been increasing numbers of non-white candidates running for and being elected to office, I am not persuaded that in state-wide races (Senate and Governor) and national races (Presidential elections) that we can discern a pattern yet. Perhaps only the possibility of a pattern. Certainly not enough to discard some of the safeguards put in place forty-odd years ago.

  23. Vesla Weaver January 27, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    Perhaps the real issue is not why we got it wrong but that the emphasis of the white racial attitudes and black candidates literature has been on barriers; less well hypothesized has been under what conditions in this century (not the old deracialization literature) a candidate that is perceived to have a different racial, religious, national background can win enough of the white electorate (like most Democrats, Obama did not win a majority of whites).

    John Transue’s hypothesis of shared American national identity trumping racial identity is fascinating and I think presents a useful answer. I’d like to add a similar hypothesis that Jennifer and I have talked a bit about:

    Implicit racial appeals eventually replaced explicit (a la Mendelberg, Kinder & Sanders, etc.); perhaps another transformation has now taken place, one in which implicit appeals have
    taken yet another form, namely not to mobilize white racial resentment
    but rather white racial identity/solidarity (through references by the
    candidates to middle America, Main Street, “middle-class, average,
    everyday American family like mine” quoting Palin, Joe 6-pack,
    patriots and patriotism, neighborhoods, small towns, hockey moms, the
    people, and on and on…). Speaking about the “average American” or small towns being pro-American culls up images of white America, but evades charge because it is seemingly more about class and American-ness. McCain/Palin used this in the hopes of mobilizing whites (largely avoiding implicit and explicit appeals), a strategic choice that likely developed in response to the racial complexities
    presented by Barack Obama (his biracialness, his distancing from traditional black politics/leaders/issues, his unity message, etc.).

    However, it failed to mobilize enough whites to offset an Obama victory. Unlike implicit racial appeals of the past, it didn’t work! So, the question becomes, why? Was it economic conditions? Generational change? The nation was ready for the next “articulator” president (in Skowronek’s logic) no matter the color? Appeals to shared national identity (Transue) were more salient than appeals to white racial identity?

    I don’t like simplistic assumptions floated around that an Obama win = race no longer matters. However, it probably matters differently now and appeals to white racial identity simply didn’t carry the power they used to.

  24. Vesla Weaver January 27, 2009 at 10:46 am #

    Michael Lewis-Beck has a short piece in the 1/09 PS issue, “RACE BLUNTS THE ECONOMIC EFFECT? THE 2008 OBAMA FORECAST.”

    From that article:
    “In summer 2008, our Jobs Model forecast a Democratic presidential candidate two-party popular vote share of 56.6%, which would deliver the incumbent party the biggest defeat of any post-WorldWar II contest (Lewis-Beck and Tien 2008). However, we argued, from our analysis of different experimental and observational evidence, that this unprecedented victory would be prevented by racially intolerant voters. We estimated the net racial cost of being a black candidate and corrected our overall forecast downward to 50.1% for Barack Obama….

    We argue that the expected landslide did not materialize, because a portion of the electorate could not bring itself to vote for a black candidate. What portion? In our paper, we estimated that number, on net, at 11.5%. If we apply that correction to this current Obama forecast, we get 58.7 × 0.885 = 51.9 %. This estimate is very close to the two-party popular vote share that candidate Obama won.”

  25. Piffle_dragon January 27, 2009 at 11:22 am #

    dynamic leader + catchy slogans + impressionable populace + herd mentality + bad economy + war = Obama as president.

  26. Paula D. McClain January 27, 2009 at 12:48 pm #

    Might I add a little more to the discussion. The focus has been on white voters as the key to Obama’s election, but it is also possible that his campaign’s strategy related to racial minority groups might also be important. His campaign knew the strategic importance of registering large numbers of black and Latino voters in key Southern, e.g., South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, and the Southwest, e.g., New Mexico, and Nevada. Their strategy was to increase substantially the registrations, then mobilize these two groups to turn out in the primaries and then the general election in numbers that would put Obama over the top in states where he was not deemed to be competitive. Democratic candidates have consistently not received the majority of the white vote, so large numbers of racial minority voters, combined with the minority of the white vote would be a winning combination. This strategy was successful in shifting nine formerly Republican states (North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio) into Obama’s column on Election Day. For example, in North Carolina, more than one million blacks voted in 2008. In 2004, only 59 percent of registered black voters voted compared with 66 percent of white voters. In 2008, however, a record 74 percent of blacks registered to vote turned out and voted, surpassing the 66 percent rate for whites for the first time Blacks were 23 percent of those who turned out to vote on Election Day, which is higher than their proportion (21 percent in 2006) of North Carolina’s citizen voting age population. Sixty-four percent of white North Carolina voted for McCain with 35 percent voting for Obama. Thus, blacks over-performed in voting turnout and Obama won North Carolina by 14,177 votes.
    A similar pattern was present in New Mexico among Latino voters. Latinos, primarily Mexican Americans, were 41 percent of those that turned out to vote on Election Day, although they represent 33.4 percent of the citizen voting age population (as of 2006). The number of Latinos voting increased by 37 percent over 2004 and 69 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, turning New Mexico from red to blue. Obama also focused efforts on states with early voting like North Carolina and New Mexico, where 41.7 percent of New Mexicans voted early in-person and another 21 percent by mail, with only 37.7 percent actually turning out to vote on Election Day. In North Carolina, 52 percent of black voters voted early, compared to 40 percent of white voters.

    I say all of this in response to Jennifer’s initial question of whether we got it wrong. My response is that the answer is far more complex and is related to the votes of blacks, Latinos and other racial groups that countered his loss of the white vote in key Electoral College states. Clearly, campaigns matter!

  27. John Transue January 27, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

    This certainly is a fascinating thread. Vesla raises some points that are closer to Jennifer’s central question, in that she asks what is different about American society in 2008 rather than focusing on what Obama did. As Paula points out, the strategic choices Obama made are surely a big part of the reason. (By the way, thanks for posting all that information, Paula. I hadn’t realized how successful those decisions were in the end.)

    I think Vesla is exactly right that “the emphasis of the white racial attitudes and black candidates literature has been on barriers; less well hypothesized has been under what conditions in this century (not the old deracialization literature) a candidate that is perceived to have a different racial, religious, national background can win enough of the white electorate …,” and the choices of which white racial attitudes to measure made it harder to see the changes coming.

    I believe that the survey and experimental study of racial policy attitudes used dependent variables that left us with an impoverished view of racial equality and kept us from seeing the societal changes that made Obama’s presidency possible. Jennifer’s book on the American dream got me to thinking about what a society would look like where whites and minorities would agree that we had achieved racial equality. The questions we’ve used don’t do a very good job of measuring progress toward this goal. For example, the DVs in Kinder & Sanders are almost all about whether the respondent would be willing to support some kind of aid to African-Americans (spending, regulations, effort, etc.). While I think those items did a good job at the low end, I don’t think that the high end gets us where we want to be. If a white respondent hit the ceiling on an index of aid to African-Americans items, they’ve shown concern for African-Americans, but I don’t think they’ve necessarily shown that they consider African-Americans to be equals. I’ve argued that we should be measuring a belief in shared stewardship, that a person could be a member of the “other” group and still be trusted to run the country in a fair and effective manner (e.g. not just to benefit their group).

    Although it’s not the same situation, and it may not be right to compare European immigrants to African-Americans, the pattern I’m thinking of is how the political meaning of the Irish changed. They went from being a feared group in the popular imagination to being a charming addition to America (despite the fact that belief in many of their negative stereotypes is still intact). In the same way that the race card failed this time around, as Vesla noted, it’s not even possible to play the Irish card. To say that somebody is irresponsible or clannish just because they’re Irish won’t work today the way it once would. To me, one marker of racial equality would be when it just isn’t credible to say that a person’s race tells us anything about how they’ll perform as President (or any position, but I’m sticking with a running example). So we did screw up by focusing on African-Americans as people to be aided rather than as potential leaders.

    This is not to say that it’s easy to create questions that do work. The hoary GSS item that asked “If your party nominated a (Negro/Black) for President, would you vote for him if he were qualified for the job?” seems to fit the bill, but in 1996 93% of respondents said yes and GSS stopped running the item. I have tried some experiments that compare reactions to a hypothetical town run by whites versus a hypothetical town run by African-Americans, but they didn’t work out well (I’m thinking now that I ought to give them another try).

    More in the realm of how has society changed, the fact that we are in two hot wars and an amorphous war on terror makes a difference. This comes back to my belief in broad identities, but when the entire country is under attack, the shared national identity becomes more salient and the distance between anglo- and African-Americans becomes smaller. We actually see some of this in the data reported in “How Americans Responded: A Study of Public Reactions to 9/11/01” an article that Traugott and a cast of thousands had in PS:
    JSTOR link to Traugott et al.

    I think that this drawing together in the face of an external enemy brought Obama the African-American closer to whites, and his firmness toward terrorists kept his middle name from pushing him outside the identity boundary. I believe external threats diminishing the salience of domestic divisions is one mechanism underlying the pattern that Philip Klinkner reveals in _The Unsteady March_ (I have to confess that I don’t know if Philip Klinkner would agree).

  28. I Hate Stars January 27, 2009 at 5:43 pm #

    All of this presupposes that white voters see Barack Obama as a Black man. He obviously is not descended from American slaves, as many black politicians are, and he only came up through a black political tradition to the extent that he had to represent South Side Chicago. Noam Scheiber had a great article on this in the New Republic in 2004.

  29. Raphael Sonenshein January 29, 2009 at 12:03 am #

    Thanks to Jennifer for getting this party started. Perhaps we should not wonder if political scientists were wrong because that makes us all defensive. The question for me is a little different. I always joke to my students that i avoid predictions but will always be ready to explain why the outcome was inevitable. Yet in the case of Obama’s victory, I could not do that. Here is why.

    I have always thought that the best way to think about who might become president is to look at the statewide offices that are the greatest stepping stones (along with military leadership) to the White House. When a group elects a lot of people to the Senate and to governorships, it is only a matter of time before the next step to the summit.

    By that reasoning, it seemed much more likely that a woman would be elected president instead of an African American. Back in 1990, i wrote an article in PSQ called “Can Black Candidates Win Statewide Elections?” that was quite pessimistic about the jump from mayors to statewide offices. My guess then was that a moderate Republican might be the first Black president (like Colin Powell).

    In the meantime, women crowded into the base camp we call statewide office in large numbers. Next stop would be vice presidency and presidency. I got in a lot of friendly arguments in spring of 2008 because i kept saying that it was far more astounding for Obama to be where he was than for Hillary Clinton to be where she was. It seemed to me that women were in position in both parties for the next step, but that Obama was a genuine phenomenon moving well past the supply lines of African American politics.

    So the problem posed by Obama’s election for us is not that we were wrong, but that a true discontinuity took place that “should” not have taken place. There was nothing in our work to say that it was only a matter of time for there to be an African American president. But because of the unique nature of our system, in which candidates can self organize, a brilliant outsider broke the old rules and made new ones.

    Once Obama became viable, though, perhaps there was a tendency to downgrade his chances based on models of racial politics that were undergoing a subtle change. I think one way to look at this is that there was a cultural change happening that did not mean a huge shift in the election of black candidates in general, but an opening for a huge jump for one candidate. It’s significant that McCain had a solid win among whites over 30, but that among all those under 30, of all racial and ethnic groups, it’s basically a different electorate. Obama had a star quality that touched not only political lines but also cultural ones that those under 30 recognize.

    I wonder a bit optimistically if this means that the cultural leap that made Obama’s election possible (along of course with all the obvious political factors of 2008) might filter back down in the broader racial politics of our society.