A still image from the Willie Horton ad (Source: National Political Action Committee)
A still image from the Willie Horton ad (Source: National Political Action Committee)

Earlier this week, I discussed the famous “Willie Horton” ad from the 1988 presidential election. It was part of a multi-pronged attack on Michael Dukakis’s record on crime, one that has frequently been characterized as dooming Dukakis’s chance of winning the presidency.

But, strikingly, the apparent impact of this attack disappeared when one thing happened: defenders of Dukakis argued that the attack was an appeal to racial prejudice. This is the finding of the political scientist, Tali Mendelberg, who has studied this attack closely.

Now, new research confirms this finding: when politicians make what is arguably a racial appeal, an effective defense is to accuse them of playing the race card.

This research, by political scientists Tatishe Nteta, Rebecca Lisi, and Melinda Tarsi, involved a controversial Mitt Romney ad from the 2012 election. In the ad, “Right Choice,” Romney accused Obama of trying to “gut” welfare reform by dropping work requirements.

Fact-checkers quickly criticized the ad on factual grounds. Others noted that the ad was racially coded — a claim consistent with political science research on welfare. Nteta and colleagues write:

While the ad never engages race, it juxtaposes racial imagery (i.e., hardworking
whites) with a narrative that employs welfare policy as a coded discussion of a government
policy that has long been associated in the minds of Americans as unfairly redistributing
benefits to “lazy” or “undeserving” African-Americans…

In October and November 2012, Nteta and colleagues conducted an experiment on over 1,400 white subjects. All of them saw the Romney ad. Afterward, they were randomly assigned to read one of four fictional editorials about the ad, or to read no editorial.

The editorials varied in whether their author was described as a Democratic or Republican member of Congress, and in whether this person argued that the ad was, or was not, racially coded.

For example, when the editorial argued that the ad was racially coded, it said that Romney “has unapologetically played the race card in hopes of convincing white voters that the nation’s first African American president will provide government handouts to undeserving members of the African American community.” In the other editorial, the author argued that it was Romney’s critics that have in fact played the race card.

Nteta and colleagues found that the editorial accusing Romney of playing the race card increased the percentage of both Democrats and Republicans who believed the ad had racial undertones. It also decreased support for Romney among both Democrats and Republicans.

There are some nuances based on whether Democrats and Republicans read an editorial written by a member of their own party and the opposite party. But interestingly, this mattered less than Nteta, Lisi, and Tarsi expected. People didn’t only believe their party’s editorial.

To be sure, most Democrats continued to oppose Romney and most Republicans to support him. Nteta and colleagues are merely showing that the “Romney played the race card” argument can change people’s minds, and not to Romney’s advantage.

The ultimate argument of this research is that although some people may harbor racial prejudice, many have also absorbed the idea that racial appeals are out of bounds. So drawing people’s attention to the “race card” can be a good way to counteract its effect.