Your Opinions on Health Care Reform, Taxes, and Even the President’s Dog Come Down to Racial Bias

The new science of winning campaigns.
June 1 2012 11:03 AM

It All Comes Down to Race

Your opinions on health care reform, taxes, and even the president’s dog come down to racial bias.

Bo Obama.
The Obama family dog, a Portuguese water dog named Bo, trots across the South Lawn Aug. 2, 2010

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The wishful scenario many Republicans envisioned after Barack Obama’s change of heart this month on gay marriage—the president’s African-American base, far less supportive of expanding marriage than other parts of his coalition, becomes demobilized or even defects as a result of Obama’s stance—already seems unlikely to be realized. Last Thursday, Public Policy Polling revealed a 36-point swing in black support for gay marriage among Maryland voters, who will have the chance to legalize the practice in a November referendum, since PPP’s last poll on the subject in March. Then, 56 percent had been opposed to the new marriage law and 39 percent supported it. In May, PPP found the numbers nearly reversed: 55 percent supported, and 36 opposed. By all indications, black voters weren’t abandoning Obama over an issue on which they disagreed, but adjusting their opinions to match his.

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

That notion—that our views toward Obama are stable and everything else is changing around them—has been at the core of Michael Tesler’s groundbreaking survey research throughout the Obama era. Last week, as PPP tracked opinion in Maryland, the Brown University political scientist was reviewing his own national polls conducted since Obama’s switch, which helped moor the movement on gay marriage in a broader, deeper set of attitudes. Not only was Obama’s support pulling blacks toward his position, it was also pushing a segment of whites whom Tesler categorized as “racial conservatives” away from his position. In other words, Obama had such sway over race-conscious voters that they adjusted their positions on gay marriage because of him.

If Tesler was surprised by this, it was only because he believed views on gay marriage would be some of the most stable in politics, deeply anchored in moral values. Since 2009, Tesler has been chronicling what he calls the “racialization” of issues in the Obama era—the extent to which public opinion on topics unrelated to race have taken on a racial cast as Obama has staked out positions on them. Tesler has used polling experiments to identify a series of issues that have become enmeshed in complicated racial attitudes by dint of Obama’s association with them: health care reform, taxes, the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Even Bo Obama fell into this matrix; racists looked less favorably on a picture of the president’s dog when they learned the identity of his owner. That part, too, surprised Tesler. “I thought people would have stronger views about dogs than politics,” he said.

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The 31-year-old’s academic career has taken place almost entirely in the Obama era, and he has begun to assemble a compelling framework for understanding what Obama’s legacy might be, regardless of whether he wins a second term. Tesler’s body of research suggests that instead of delivering what many suggested would be a post-racial presidency, Obama will have polarized corners of American politics previously untouched by race. Not only have racial considerations affected whether voters will support Obama, but they are beginning to renovate the entire architecture of public opinion.

Tesler’s mentor, UCLA psychologist David Sears, introduced the idea that it did not take policies with overtly racial content—like the Civil Rights Act or affirmative action—for racial attitudes to spill over into political views. In 1987, Sears, along with Jack Citrin and Rick Kosterman, published a chapter in the book Blacks in Southern Politics arguing that the mere fact of Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy three years earlier (the first competitive one waged by an African-American) had accelerated the polarization of southern politics. Using National Election Study survey data, Sears demonstrated that Southern whites who harbored racial animus (as measured by their evaluations of blacks and views on welfare and school busing) thought less of the Democratic Party after Jackson ran for president. Race was still shaping their views of the contest between two white men, Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.

By the time Obama announced his candidacy two decades later, the country appeared to have changed. The overtly racial issues like affirmative action and busing had largely receded from political debates, and what Tesler and Sears called “old-fashioned racism” of the Jim Crow era had all but disappeared from public life. Yet when Tesler and Sears looked at poll data from 2008, they found what much anecdotal reporting from that campaign had suggested: people’s decisions to vote for Obama were linked to their posture on race. Tesler measured this through a “racial-resentment battery” of questions he could add to any political survey—asking respondents if blacks suffered discrimination and whether the country has gone too far pushing for equal rights.

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