Issue Of The Week XXXVI: Racial Bias In The Presidential Election?

October 22, 2012
Written by D. A. Barber in
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Psychology Professor, Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington. Photo Credit: University of Washington

Results released this month from an ongoing University of Washington study of eligible voters indicate that partiality for whites over blacks is the strongest in the least politically-partisan voters and racial biases against President Barack Obama could produce up to a 20 percent gap in the popular vote in an otherwise equal contest.

"Although they may not determine the election outcome, race biases are having a strong anti-Obama effect among the least politically partisan voters," said Anthony Greenwald, the University of Washington psychology professor who conducted the survey.

But Greenwald notes that "People who have race biases against Obama may still believe he's preferable to Mitt Romney for other reasons, and so race attitudes do not appear to be potent enough to overcome the other sources of favorability for Obama."

Greenwald's latest online survey of about 8,600 eligible voters collected from July through September found 80 percent of the respondents were white, which reflects the electorate. However, because the sample had a substantial majority of liberals which does not represent the American electorate says Greenwald.

Greenwald measured unconscious racial attitudes using the Implicit Association Test, a tool he developed more than a decade ago. Greenwald found that 25 percent of the most ideologically polarized voters who appeared to have already settled on their preferred choice, racial attitudes appeared to influence votes for only about 2.4 percent. But the 25 percent who were least polarized with no strong affiliations with either political party, racial attitudes influenced nearly 10 percent. Greenwald notes that if 10 percent of voters switched their vote for or against a candidate, it would cause a 20 percent gap between candidates.


In other words, those at the far ideological end of the spectrum strongly favoring Obama or Romney were relatively unaffected by racial attitudes while those closer to the middle showed they were more likely influenced by racial biases.

Greenwald’s findings are consistent with the results he released in May using nearly 15,000 voters. That study revealed that between January and April 2012 leading up to the Republican primary, eligible voters who favored whites over blacks –consciously or unconsciously – also favored Republican candidates. In that study, a majority of white eligible voters showed a pattern labeled “automatic white preference” when measuring unconscious racial bias. Past studies indicate that both blacks and whites show such preferences for their own race, according to Greenwald. However, when it comes to unconscious preferences, blacks tend not to prefer one race over another, whereas close to 70 percent of white Americans show an implicit racial bias, said Greenwald.

“The study’s findings raise an interesting question: After nearly four years of having an African-American president in the White House, why do racial attitudes continue to have a role in electoral politics?” Greenwald asked.

Greenwald speculates that Obama as president during the 2012 election may have “brought out race-based antagonism that had less reason to be activated in 2008.” Another possibility is that Republican assertions that the most important goal is to remove Obama from the presidency “may have strong appeal to those who have latent racial motivation,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald’s survey will continue through October in order to determine whether racial attitudes have as large of an effect on undecided voters.

What do you think?

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racial bias

Submitted by CSULB-7F2012 on

I chose to read this article because it has been something that has been on my mind lately. After watching the presidential debates- it seemed that the color of Obama's skin had more of an impact than his actual plans of action. Is this because Obama's competitor Mitt Romney is white? I am not sure- but I think it is really sad that people are still prejudice today because of someone's culture or ethnic background. I was also not surprised that most of the Republicans favored whites over African Americans. In my experience- people who are liberals are more open to mixed races and tend to not discriminate someone based by the color of their skin.

I to agree that Obama's skin

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-38 on

I to agree that Obama's skin color made a major impact in the lives of American rather than the work and issue he confronted during the last four years. Racism is alive and it brings pain and unforgettable experiences. One of the works I am pleased he pushed forth was to end the Iraq War. As a United States soldier, knowing that my fellow comrades were risking their lives affected me greatly in the home front.


Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-38 on

In 2008, for many people of color, their excitement about electing Barack Obama was hushed by the awareness that race still matters greatly in America. Race is a still a factor in America. When a man named Barack Obama surfaced people were eager to know who was this man and was he born in the United States. There were major conspiracy theories about the citizenship of Barack Obama and him being ineligible to be President of the United States. Now four years later, Obama has been reelected and America is more divided than before. People are not interested in his policy change for Americans but the color of his skin. I strongly believe, he has been politically held back by the Republican Party and prejudice Washington. He does not have the power to do it on his own. He has to work with and negotiate with a racist Congress and racist local governments. The responsibility is on Republicans and racists, not President Obama for his shortcomings.