Obama's Mistakes and the Role of Race

In a column for Bloomberg View I argue that, if Obama loses this election, it won't be for what many will say are the obvious reasons -- because the economy is weak and Obama's an African-American. It'll be because he ran as a failed progressive rather than a successful centrist. Almost to the exclusion of everything else, his campaign has emphasized the leftist priority of taxing the rich more heavily, the issue on which he's been constantly beaten back. To most people, I think, that goal seems desirable or inevitable, but it isn't the alpha and omega of public policy. Meanwhile Obama seems embarrassed even to mention his far larger centrist achievements: an effective (for all its faults) fiscal stimulus and universal health-care coverage.

Certainly, the economy is a negative for the incumbent, but much less than generally supposed. Most voters understand all too well that the president inherited the worst recession since the 1930s, and that the recovery was going to be a long, hard haul. To be sure, they're asking whether his policies are helping, and they are far from convinced. They've noticed his silence on where his economic policies go from here. But the mere fact that the economy is weak wasn't fatal to Obama's prospects.

As for race, the fact that Obama is black has been more an asset than a liability and it remains so. There's racism in America, but there's also an immense desire to overcome it. The voters swinging back to Romney aren't racist, or they wouldn't have supported Obama in 2008. Remember the joyous inauguration of 2009. The political center of the country was thrilled and proud to have elected a black president: an exceptionally talented man, and the best possible salve for the nation's unhealed racial wounds.

Every voter who chose Obama in 2008 still wants him to succeed. But not all are convinced he can, and that's partly because he has stopped trying to be the president he said he'd be. The need to fix Washington, the need for a bridge-building, post-partisan presidency was uppermost in centrist voters' minds when they elected Obama, and he'd made that the core of his campaign. Washington is still broken -- more so than before -- and Obama is no longer even trying to mend it.

As I expected, not many people seem to agree with me that Obama's race has been an asset rather than a liability. More than once I've been referred to a paper on this question by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. (He wrote it up for the New York Times here.) This paper measures racial animus by looking at the geographical distribution of Google searches for "racially charged" terms--that is, the words "nigger" and "niggers". By comparing Obama's performance in 2008 with John Kerry's in 2004, he can measure the national change in support for the Democrat against the change in states with high or low racism. Unsurprisingly, he finds that states scoring high on his racism index voted less for Obama than states scoring low. Overall, he estimates, racism cost Obama 3 to 5 percent of the popular vote in 2008.

The paper recognizes that there might be an offsetting pro-black influence. It puts this at a little over 1 percent, with the effect working mainly through the votes of African-Americans. So the net cost of Obama's race, according to the paper, is a loss of 2 to 4 percent of the vote.

Why do I think this underestimates the offsetting positive effect of Obama's race? Here's what the paper says about white voters:

A variety of evidence suggest that few white voters swung, in the general election, for Obama due to his race. Only one percent of whites said that race made them much more likely to support Obama. In exit polls, 3.4 percent of whites did report both voting for Obama and that race was an important factor in their decision. But the overwhelming majority of these voters were liberal, repeat voters likely to have voted for a comparable white Democratic presidential candidate... Although social scientists strongly suspect that individuals may underreport racial animus, there is little reason to suspect underreporting of pro-black sentiment.

Well, it depends what you mean by "underreporting of pro-black sentiment."

I can easily imagine a white voter who would deny that race made him "much more likely" to support Obama or even that race was "an important factor", but who was nonetheless delighted that an exceptionally talented black man had presented himself as a candidate for the presidency, who felt it was a good thing for the country, and who would want to support him other things equal. I bet most of the people I know fall into this category (and they're not all partisan Democrats). None of them would say they voted for Obama because he's black--a sentiment, of course, that would be insulting to the man. Nonetheless, I think they'd say, it's great that he is.

Call it reverse racism if you must. (That label is one good reason, by the way, to suspect "underreporting of pro-black sentiment". People would rather think of themselves as color-blind than prejudiced in either direction.) Whatever: I think that attitude is entirely justified. It's not being captured in the studies I've seen. And if it's as widespread as I'd guess it to be, it could easily be worth another 2 to 4 percent of the popular vote.