October 14, 2008

No, Race Will Not Hurt Obama

Since Obama started his run for the presidency, I've heard many times that he'll never win because he's black.  People who say this think that either, 1) the country is too racist, or 2) the polls are wrong because voters won't vote for a black person, even though they tell pollsters they will (this is the so-called Bradley effect). The AP went so far as to make the preposterous claim that Obama is as much as 6% behind where he would be if he were white.

These arguments are misinformed.

Of course there is still racism in America. However, this is one of those rare cases where I'm glad we still have an electoral college.  Luckily Obama only needs to win 270 electoral votes, and he is on track to easily surpass that without winning states  where racism is supposedly most rampant. 

At this point though, I'm not even sure which states are the "racist" ones.  I guess they're supposed to be in the South, though based on current polling Obama is on track to perform better than both Kerry and Gore, who both lost every Southern state.  Obama is forecast to win Florida and Virginia, is running strong in North Carolina, and may even have a chance of winning Georgia thanks to strong black turnout.

Ah, but political insiders say, the polls are wrong because voters don't want to admit they won't vote for a black man.  They cite the Bradley effect, named after a candidate who lost the California gubernatorial race in 1982.

Many journalists have been looking at this theory, and Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com has pulled together the best analysis I've seen. He cites Bradley's own pollster, V. Lance Tarrance who explains that even in Bradley's 1982 contest there was no Bradley effect!  The Pew Research Center studied a number of elections and concluded that the effect did exist in the 80s and 90s but no longer holds, in part because polling techniques have improved and in part because attitudes have changed. Finally, Silver points out, Obama outperformed the polls by 3.3% during the Democratic primaries. This finding solidly refutes the AP's wild speculation, which focused on Democatic voters.

There are still plenty of things that could derail this election.  My wife S consistently reminds me not to be over-optimistic, and she's right. But given the data, racism is one of the last things I'm worried about.

By Will Friedman in Election '08 | Permalink  | 


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