The N Factor

One of the more prestigious political science journal just published an issue devoted to prognostications about the upcoming Presidential election. A variety of academics used their favored forecasting methodologies, and predicted the likely winner. The results ranged from “comfortably Obama” to “very, very close” to one “Romney by a nose.” (I’ve noted that “scientific” methods are a lot more accurate after the election has occurred.)

The problem with forecasting models is that they rarely take into account elements like likability; heretofore, they have not had to confront massive spending by SuperPacs, either. And even the scholars who employ them hedge their bets.

One element that was not measurable before 2008–and has now been measured–is the influence of race, as in the race of the candidates. Any sentient being knows that much of the anti-Obama animus is race-based (the “birthers” and people convinced that the President is a Muslim are so obviously substituting those charges for the N word). What has been unclear is the extent to which that racism motivates votes. In that journal’s issue on the election, one article analyzed data from the 2008 election, and concluded that his race had cost Obama five percent of the vote–that is, that Obama’s percentage of the popular vote would have been five percent higher had he been white. The author of that article forecast a slightly better result this time around; according to his calculations, racism will “only” cost Obama three percentage points this time around.

Of course, in a very close election, three percent is enough.

A lot of folks are in denial about the extent to which race influences attitudes about the President. They shrug off the more obvious indicators, like the guy in the photo taken at a Romney rally, whose tee shirt read “Put the white back in the White House.” I have friends whose unease with the President is pretty clearly based upon his “otherness,” but who don’t recognize or admit to themselves that such feelings are a part of their political calculus.

If we are inclined to dismiss the influence of racism, a look at Gallup’s polling may serve as a wake-up call. Gallup has been an “outlier” lately, showing Romney five or six points ahead in the popular vote. When you look at the internals, you see an interesting phenomenon: in Gallup’s numbers, Obama holds modest leads in the Northeast, Midwest and West. Romney leads in the South–by twenty-two points.

Maybe we shouldn’t have fought the civil war–and just let the South go.


  1. Ah, the debate concerning quantitative versus qualitative methodologies.

    Difficult to quantify “likability” or “racial prejudice”. Still, I imagine that one could utilize some sort of proxy variables, if one thought about it long enough.

    If we hadn’t fought the Civil War, there might have been a nation of Deseret instead of a state called Utah, too. 😉

  2. Your “friends whose unease with the President is pretty clearly based upon his “otherness,” but who don’t recognize or admit to themselves that such feelings…” are exhibiting “aversive racism” the existence of which makes establishing an equitable society such a frustrating challenge. Aversive racists exist everywhere – even among some of my supposedly enlightened (White) colleagues on campus!

    I wonder if the thee percentage point “cost” of racism ignores the impact of the voter-ID laws passed by self-proclaimed non-racist Republican legislators in too many states – a scary thought, since I fear the “cost” may be greater than in 2008.

  3. As the lighter half of a long term interracial couple, I can attest to a number of lively convesations concerning “racism” this supposedly “post-racial era” after Obama’s election.

    Unfortunately the dialogue at times may suffer because the term “racism” itself can be unproductively polarizing, as is much the same with the term “bigot”. I understand there may be value in having majority folks (be they white, heterosexual, etc.) face whatever it is that we’re sure they are in denial of. But perhaps at times we sweep with too broad of a brush, lumping well-meaning people trying to do the right thing, (though perhaps misguided as to what that is), with The Klu Klux Klan or Pastor Fred Phelps. Productive racial dialogue, or any dialogue on divisive social issues, cannot be the stuff of easy labels or stuffed into fifteen second sound bites.

  4. A friend who is usually a charitable soul thinks she isn’t rascist but freaked out one day when an African American gas meter reader entered her yard. It took some doing to calm her down.

    On another occasion, someone complimented her on her special attractiveness and strong features which reminded of Oprah Winfrey. She was insulted and horrified. We tried to assuage her with comments that as Oprah is a strong and engaging personality with attractive features to match, so was she. She was having none of it.

    As with many things, racism has its degrees of severity and sometimes cannot be seen for the log in our eye.

  5. Racism and bigotry comes in many forms, in many ways. Being a white woman married to a black man, I was watchful but, except for my own family’s racism, faced little overt reactions from people. While vacationing in Canada, we arrived in Montreal around 3:00 a.m to find no room at the inn due to a convention in town. A very nice gas station attendant called friends of his who owned a Bed and Breakfast nearby. They were a very nice gay couple who waited for us to arrive and showed us to our room. Waking late the next day we walked the neighborhood looking for a place to eat; spotting a large neighborhood tavern which served food we went in. It was very crowded and noisy but we made our way through the crowds to a table on the far side; we noticed the noise seemed to die down as we walked. The bartender quickly came to our table, leaned over and told my husband, “I”m sorry sir, but I will have to ask you to leave. We don’t serve women in here.” Looking carefully as we left we noticed not one woman. For years my husband told friends the only time he ever got kicked out of anywhere was because he was with me. Sometimes people do surprise us.

  6. Seeing as how the majority of the posts involving racism on this blog deal exclusively with Republicans, your suggestion that any Republican wouldn’t vote for Obama because of his race and not because he was a very liberal-voting member of the Senate is THE strawman of strawmen.

    Of course, we must also believe that the reason why the media never did their due diligence on candidate Obama was because of racism. Perhaps they were swept up in the euphoria and the intrigue and forgot, who knows.

    And as far as the birther thing goes, last time I checked Romney didn’t have any birthers in his admin rank people. How many truthers has Obama been linked to? That’s why so many people think you’re missing half the equation on which party has left the reservation.

    Amazing that the guy has(had) one of the highest likeability ratings (which you mentioned) ever, but you obviously don’t want to connect the dots on that one because it deconstructs this flawed thesis. To paraphrase the President, who handled himself with remarkable aplomb when posed questions about racism in the 2008 election, “last time I checked, I was black before the election, too.”

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