The redneck factor

Posted in democracy, elections, politics, US by jrahman on November 1, 2012

I am not an American.  But as a de facto subject of the de facto American Empire, obviously I have an interest in who our next Imperial Overlord will be.  Four years ago, I urged my American readers to vote for Barack Obama.  Those arguments, broadly speaking, still holds.  So, dear reader, if you’re an American and for some reason still undecided, please re-elect your president.

Four years ago, I thought Obama was going to win, and acted on that belief.  I was lot more sanguine about the better angels of America than my friends with whom I wagered — they were convinced that America wasn’t ready for a black president with middle name Hussein.

Turns out, I was lucky.  According to a fascinating paper, racism might have won the election for John McCain.  And if these estimates are right, Mitt Romney might easily be the next Global Emperor President of the United States.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a freshly-minted Harvard economics PhD.  His thesis title is ‘Essays Using New Data’.  His job market paper is titled The effects of racial animus on a black presidential candidate: using google search data to find what surveys miss.  Here is the abstract:

How can we know how much racial animus costs black candidates if few voters will admit such socially
unacceptable attitudes to surveys? I use a new, non-survey proxy for an area’s racial animus: Google
search queries that include racially charged language. I compare the proxy to an area’s votes for Barack
Obama, the 2008 black Democratic presidential candidate, controlling for its votes for John Kerry, the
2004 white Democratic presidential candidate. Previous research using a similar specification but survey
proxies for racial attitudes yielded little evidence that racial attitudes affected Obama. Racially charged
search, in contrast, is a robust negative predictor of Obama’s vote share. My estimates imply that
continuing racial animus in the United States cost Obama 3 to 5 percentage points of the national
popular vote in 2008, yielding his opponent the equivalent of a home-state advantage country-wide.

Basically, the idea is to regress Obama’s 2008 vote relative to John Kerry at local level on a number of proxies (such as economic conditions, or whether the area has a Democrat or Republican Congressman, or demography, subscription of gun magazines and other controls) as well as a proxy of racism.  The author’s proxy for racism is google search of the term ‘nigger(s)’.  His hypothesis is that higher the search of the term ‘nigger(s)’ in an area, the more racist it is, and fewer votes Obama got there in 2008 after accounting for Kerry’s 2004 vote take and economic, social and political factors.

As an aside, methodologically, this is quite brilliant.  Use of google search data in this way is a very useful contribution to social science.

Back to the main topic of the post — the author finds a statistically significant relationship between the proxy for racism and Obama’s vote share.  Specifically, one standard deviation increase in the google search for ‘nigger(s)’ reduced Obama’s vote by 1.5 percentage point after accounting for other factors.  He calculates that if the entire United States were like its least racist states, Obama would have won 3 to 5 percentage points more votes in 2008.

I am not going to bore you with all the econometric details.  Read the paper if you’re interested.  Suffice it to say, he ticks off all the usual diagnostic tests.

So, if Mr Stephens-Davidowitz is right, Obama might have won a massive landslide in 2008 had he been white.  And if those estimates are still valid, America will soon have a new president.


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