Unconscious racial attitudes playing large role in 2012 presidential vote

May 7, 2012

After the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, many proclaimed that the country had entered a post-racial era in which race was no longer an issue. However, a new large-scale study shows that racial attitudes have already played a substantial role in 2012, during the Republican primaries. They may play an even larger role in this year's presidential election.

The study, led by at the University of Washington, shows that between January and April 2012 eligible voters who favored whites over blacks – either consciously or unconsciously – also favored relative to .

"People were saying that with Obama's election became a dead issue, but that's not at all the case," said lead investigator Anthony Greenwald, a UW psychology professor.

The study's findings mean that many white and non-white voters, even those who don't believe they tend to favor whites over blacks, might vote against Obama because of his race. These voters could cite the economy or other reasons, but a contributing cause could nevertheless be their conscious or unconscious .

"Our findings may indicate that many of those who expressed egalitarian attitudes by voting for Obama in 2008 and credited themselves with having 'done the right thing' then are now letting other considerations prevail," said collaborator Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology professor at Harvard University.

In the study, a majority of white eligible voters showed a pattern labeled "automatic white preference" on a widely used measure of unconscious race bias. Previous studies indicate that close to 75 percent of white Americans show this implicit bias.

In a study done just prior to the 2008 , Greenwald and colleagues found that race attitudes played a role in predicting votes for the Republican candidate John McCain.

The 2012 data, collected from nearly 15,000 voters, show that race was again a significant factor in candidate preferences.

In an online survey, Greenwald asked survey-takers about their political beliefs, how "warmly" they felt toward black and white people, and which presidential contender they preferred. Because the survey was conducted in the first four months of 2012, it included the five main Republican hopefuls – Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum – as well as Obama.

Greenwald also measured unconscious race attitude using the Implicit Association Test, a tool he developed more than a decade ago to gauge thoughts that people don't realize they have. Different variations of the test measure implicit attitudes about race, gender, sexuality, ethnicities and other topics.

Greenwald found that favoritism for Republican candidates was predicted by respondents' racial attitudes, both their self-reported views and their implicit biases measured by the IAT. Greenwald emphasized that the study's finding that some candidates are more attractive to voters with pro-white racial attitudes does not mean that those candidates are racist.

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

He suspects that Obama's power as president in 2012, compared with his lesser status as candidate in 2008, may have "brought out race-based antagonism that had less reason to be activated in 2008."

Another possibility is that Republican candidates' assertions that their most important goal is to remove Obama from the presidency "may have strong appeal to those who have latent racial motivation," Greenwald said.

Greenwald and his research team will continue to collect people's attitudes about the 2012 presidential candidates as part of their Decision 2012 IAT study. Now that Mitt Romney has emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee, the researchers are modifying their survey to focus on voters' comparisons of Romney with Obama.

Explore further: Study suggests polls overestimate support for Obama, underestimate back for Clinton

More information: They plan to post summaries of the data each month until the November election. Anyone can take the test online: implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ … mo/featuredtask.html

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Waiting periods reduce deaths from guns, study suggests

October 17, 2017

(Phys.org)—A trio of researchers with Harvard Business School has found evidence that they claim shows gun deaths decline when states enact waiting period laws. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy ...

Roman theater uncovered at base of Jerusalem's Western Wall

October 16, 2017

Israeli archaeologists on Monday announced the discovery of the first known Roman-era theater in Jerusalem's Old City, a unique structure around 1,800 years old that abuts the Western Wall and may have been built during Roman ...

Human speech, jazz and whale song

October 13, 2017

Jazz musicians riffing with each other, humans talking to each other and pods of killer whales all have interactive conversations that are remarkably similar to each other, new research reveals.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (8) May 07, 2012
What a pointless study, and test. Of course a "white preferring" voter would pick a Republican candidate over the Democrat incumbent. However, they would just as likely have voted for Herman Cain had he become the Republican nominee.

Personally, I'm not voting for Barry because I don't like his policies and methodologies; he had a chance and he failed.

And why do people, particularly those claiming racial motivation for not voting for him, consistently omit that he's half white?
2.7 / 5 (7) May 07, 2012
Insanity. Herman Cain was leading in the Republican primary until he was accused by multiple women of being a cheater.

Why wouldn't people want to vote for Obama? I bet being a socialist has nothing to do with it! It must be his race! LOL!
1 / 5 (3) May 07, 2012
This is left wing drivel prep for Obama's coming loss. Never mind he is a complete and utter failure as President.
1.7 / 5 (6) May 07, 2012
Is it possible that Greenwald, et al, prefers to explore and pursue the more sensational climate of racism rather than the more mundane realism of Obama as one of the most bumbling, incompetent, indecisive, insensitive, and egotistical American Presidents in the history of your country? I do not make assumptions with these words. Your President's penchant for vacation strategies versus running the country gives him a half point from one to ten in my estimation as a stranger in a very strange land. I do not think that even my President Putin likes Obama. Does that make him racist?
1.8 / 5 (5) May 07, 2012
Yes, I agree that should the Obama lose election, it will be said by many psychologists and others that it was because of race that he lost and none will mention that he was not good as leader of a country.
Psychologists are often times racists themselves, and they must transfer and ascribe their own feelings to others in order to assuage their own racist guilt.
How strange I have received a one, while telling of truth.
1 / 5 (2) May 10, 2012
if you clowns really cared you'd realize Mitt and Obama are the same -both members of the War Party - you have a choice for changes - Ron Paul - Peace

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.