Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Evidence: Prejudice cost Obama a landslide victory in the 2008 election

“Racial prejudice was strongly related to the state-level nonblack vote in the 2008 presidential election…Had there been less prejudice among the American voting public, Obama would likely have won an electoral vote landslide.”

That is the conclusion of University of California, Davis, assistant professor of Political Science, Benjamin Highton in a recently published article in the July 2011 issue of PS, a journal of the American Political Science Association.

Highton examined exit poll data and survey research data on “social distance,” a widely accepted measure of prejudice.  He found a strong correlation (-.82) between racial attitudes ( prejudice) and the non-black vote for Obama at the state level providing strong evidence that Obama received fewer votes than he could have been expected to have received in states with a high level of prejudice. 

Highton concluded:

“Clearly, the overall influence of prejudice did not prevent Obama from winning the presidential election, so in that sense, prejudice was not a decisive factor in the outcome.  However, one implication of the findings reported here is that Obama would have won more votes and possible more states had there been less prejudice. 

Highton re-ran the numbers for the 2008 election and calculated how many additional states and additional electoral votes Obama might have won had the level of prejudice in high prejudice states had been equal to that of California—the state at the 10th percentile on his prejudice scale.  This analysis showed that Obama would have won an additional nine states with 70 electoral votes.   His winning electoral vote count would have gone from 365 electoral votes to a landslide of 435 electoral votes.

Highton’s findings are important because, as he writes, the margin of victory affects a president’s subsequent ability to influence the policymaking process.”

Obama was able to push through some significant legislation (the stimulus, health reform, financial reform, etc.) but consider how much more he could have accomplished if he had begun his term coming off a landslide on the order of Johnson’s victory over Goldwater in 1964 (Johnson won with 486 electoral votes.)  He might have been able to push through liberal/progressive legislation on the order of the Johnson’s Great Society.

There is a question Highton does not address.  Would Hilary Clinton have faced the same level of prejudice if she had been the Democratic candidate?  Could she have won with the same number of electoral votes or more?  Would she have had a bigger margin of victory, the landslide Obama was denied?  Would that have made a difference in how much of the liberal/progressive agenda that could have been passed?  We will never know.  What we do know is that in spite of all the wishful thinking that the election of the first Black man as president moved us beyond racism, there is clear evidence that racism was still a factor sufficient to deny him the landslide victory he might otherwise have attained.

Source: Benjamin Highton, “Prejudice Rivals Partisanship and Ideology When Explaining the 2008 Presidential Vote across the States,” PS, July 2011, pp. 530-535.

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