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Did race play a role in shutdown?

This is a guest post by Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler.  His work focuses on American racial attitudes, especially during the Obama presidency.

Several liberal political commentators asserted that this month’s government shutdown was rooted in racist opposition to President Obama (see: 1, 2 ,3, 4, 5).   Actors Chris Noth and Robert Redford even joined the chorus, with Noth tweeting, “[The] Highest level of racism was shown yesterday when Republicans forced a shutdown of our government.  Mostly because our President is black.”  Conservatives were understandably quick to dismiss such charges.  Or as Mitt Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, put it, “There’s certainly racism left in America, but liberal pundits claiming it’s driving the government shutdown make a mockery of the real thing.”

Of course, neither side provided much evidence to support their claims.  Nor is it possible to quantify how much, if at all, Obama’s race may have mattered in the budget standoff.  But we can still glean some insights into the racialized dynamics of the shutdown by examining who voted against last week’s bipartisan deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling (H.R 2775).  More specifically, we can test whether Republican members of the House who represent congressional districts where “racial resentment” is high were more likely to vote against the bill.

This analysis leverages two large surveys with almost 100,000 respondents in total — the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project — to calculate the average level of racial resentment in each congressional district. Racial resentment, as it is described in the scholarly literature, measures how much individuals think racial inequality is due to the inner failings of African Americans. A sample question asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with this statement: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites?”  The four questions that make up this measure are here.

The graph below shows how likely each Republican in the House was to vote yes on the shutdown/debt ceiling deal, given their district’s estimated level of racial resentment.  Republican members from districts scoring high on racial resentment were considerably more likely to vote against H.R. 2275 than other Republicans.  For instance, Republicans from the House districts that have the highest levels of racial resentment (such as OK2, MO8, and LA1) were about 60 percentage points less likely to vote for the deal to end the shutdown than Republicans from districts with low levels of racial resentment  (such as GA6, AR2 and FL27).

This result holds up once other factors are taken into account.  In the graph below, the blue line shows that the relationship between district-level racial resentment and voting against the shutdown deal persisted after accounting for other attributes of congressional districts, including partisanship, ideological orientation, religiosity, and minority population.  The results also were not affected by controlling for Republicans’ own individual ideologies.  Notably, racial resentment in districts did not affect the House vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) earlier this year — legislation that, like the shutdown deal, passed with a minority of Republicans.  It appears, then, that the relationship between district-level racial resentment and the shutdown vote was not merely politics as usual.

To be sure, these results do not imply that the shutdown was primarily driven by racial prejudice against the president.  Indeed, Republican members’ own ideologies were the strongest predictor of how they voted on the shutdown. At the same time, though, the results suggest that the much publicized divisions within the Republican Party correspond to a divide in their constituents’ racial attitudes.