Of Race and Re-elections

A graduate student in economics at Harvard, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, has a piece in Sunday’s New York Times that reports on a study he’s done showing how Google searches can be used to track racial bias by state and locality and how that data can be used to show voting deficits due to racial animus.

Barack Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote in 2008 and 365 electoral votes, 95 more than he needed. Many naturally concluded that prejudice was not a major factor against a black presidential candidate in modern America. My research, a comparison of Americans’ Google searches and their voting patterns, found otherwise. If my results are correct, racial animus cost Mr. Obama many more votes than we may have realized.

The deficits run as high as 7% in states with a high volume of racist Google searches.

Racially Charged Web Searches and Voting

His original paper can be found here.

How can we know how much racial animus costs black candidates if few voters will admit such socially unacceptable attitudes to surveys? I use a new, non-survey proxy for an area’s racial animus: Google search queries that include racially charged language. I compare the proxy to an area’s votes for Barack Obama, the 2008 black Democratic presidential candidate, controlling for its votes for John Kerry, the 2004 white Democratic presidential candidate. Previous research using a similar specification but survey proxies for racial attitudes yielded little evidence that racial attitudes affected Obama. Racially charged search, in contrast, is a robust negative predictor of Obama’s vote share. My estimates imply that continuing racial animus in the United States cost Obama 3 to 5 percentage points of the national popular vote in 2008, yielding his opponent the equivalent of a home-state advantage country-wide.


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3 thoughts on “Of Race and Re-elections

  1. You have to also figure in the positive reactions to President Obama’s racial appearance. Based on my slogan that “for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction” I don’t imagine the difference between positive and negative is that great. Although I did have an outspoken friend exclaim after the 2008 election that “we can’t call it the White House any longer!”

    1. The study looked at that and determined it didn’t have much effect at all: “Yes, Mr. Obama also gained some votes because of his race. But in the general election this effect was comparatively minor. The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate. Increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama’s totals.”

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