Race and the 2012 election

August 27, 2012

Most of the issues dominating the 2012 election make sense. There’s the economy, of course. The budget deficit. Medicare. Obamacare.

But click through the “videos” section of Mitt Romney’s Web site and you’ll see something odd: His campaign is running more ads about welfare than just about any other issue. Of the 12 most recent ads posted, five are about welfare. That’s more than the number dedicated to health care (four) or introducing Paul Ryan (one) or the economy (one).
Romney’s ad warns that, “under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you a check and welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare.”

The ad refers to an Obama administration proposal to give states more flexibility in the design of their welfare programs. The proposal says that the Department of Health and Human Services “will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals.” But Romney’s ad ignores all that. Politifact rated it “pants-on-fire.” The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler gave it four Pinocchios.

Beyond being flatly false, Romney’s ads are puzzlingly anachronistic. Welfare is a shrunken program. Where it helped 68 of every 100 families in poverty in 1996, it only helped 27 of every 100 families in poverty in 2010. Meanwhile, few think the problem in this country is that the poor don’t want to work. Rather, it’s that millions of Americans -- the poor and undereducated most of all -- can’t find work no matter how hard they try. It's as if a political strategy from 1992 slipped through a wormhole and began playing out in 2012.

In modern politics, however, when a campaign begins doubling and tripling down on an unusual line of attack, it’s because it has reams of data showing the attack is working. What’s worrying is why this ad might be working.

Political scientist Michael Tesler partnered with the YouGov online polling service to test the question on 1,000 respondents. All the participants answered a standard set of questions that researchers use to identify levels of racial resentment. Half were then shown Romney’s ad. The others weren’t. Then both groups were asked whether Obama and Romney’s policies would help or hurt the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, African Americans and white Americans.

“Among those who saw it,” reports Tesler, “racial resentment affected whether people thought Romney will help the poor, the middle class and African Americans. Moreover, seeing the ad did not activate other attitudes, such as party or ideological self-identification. It only primed racial resentment.”

This is where things get tricky. Romney’s welfare ads are not racist. But the evidence suggests that they work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.

Many hoped that Obama’s election in 2008 meant we were now a post-racial polity. At the least, they hoped we were a polity that could deal with race more maturely. In this case, hope obscured the absence of change.

In truth, the 2008 election was an unusually racialized election. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economics researcher at Harvard, tested this in an interesting way. First, he ranked areas of the country based on how often they entered racist search terms into Google. Then he compared Obama's share of the vote in those areas with John Kerry's share from the 2004 election.

The result? Stephens-Davidowitz found that Obama had lost 3 percent to 5 percent of the popular vote compared to what you would have expected. Or as he put it, Obama's race, gave "his opponent the equivalent of a home-state advantage countrywide."

The racialization of politics continued after the election, too. Tesler (of the welfare ads study) and David Sears, another political scientist, looked at how racial attitudes affected Obama's approval ratings. They found that, to a degree unprecedented among recent presidents, approval of Obama was driven by attitudes on race.

In subsequent experiments, Tesler has shown that racial attitudes appear to be bleeding into almost everything in the Obama era. In one study, he found that voters with higher levels of racial resentment were more likely to oppose the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor if they heard Obama’s name than if they didn’t. A similar experiment found the same held true for health-care reform. In a third study, he showed respondents a picture of a Portuguese Water Dog and told half it was Ted Kennedy’s dog and the other half it was Obama’s dog. When respondents with higher levels of racial resentment heard it was Obama’s dog, they were more likely to disapprove of it.

Yes, you read that right: In the Obama era, racial attitudes are even influencing voter opinions about the president’s dog.

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in this month’s Atlantic, since his inauguration, Obama has been unusually reticent on race. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, examined nearly all public presidential remarks by modern presidents and found that in his first two years in office, Obama talked less about race than any other Democrat since 1961. (Indeed, the most recent and clearly racialized statement from the administration was not from Obama, but from Vice President Biden, who detoured on an inflammatory, extemporaneous warning that the Republicans "will put y'all back in chains" during a riff on financial reform.)

It’s hard to blame him. Race is hard to talk about. For one thing, by being honest about its continuing role in American life, people often think you're calling them racists, or, at the least, "playing the race card." Even in 2008, Obama only addressed the issue when the Jeremiah Wright scandal forced him to. And yet, race is being talked about, at least to those who are listening for it.

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Sarah Kliff · August 27, 2012