Googling the underbelly
Just remember. If you even hint that some of your fellow Americans might be harboring racial animus, you are a racist yourself. But taking that into consideration, check this out. Knowing that self-reporting about racist attitudes results in dubious results, a researcher decided to track racist attitudes by what people do in the privacy of their own homes:
Many Americans use Google to find racially charged material. I performed the somewhat unpleasant task of ranking states and media markets in the United States based on the proportion of their Google searches that included the word “nigger(s).” This word was included in roughly the same number of Google searches as terms like “Lakers,” “Daily Show,” “migraine” and “economist.”
A huge proportion of the searches I looked at were for jokes about African-Americans. (I did not include searches that included the word “nigga” because these searches were mostly for rap lyrics.) I used data from 2004 to 2007 because I wanted a measure not directly influenced by feelings toward Mr. Obama. From 2008 onward, “Obama” is a prevalent term in racially charged searches.
The state with the highest racially charged search rate in the country was West Virginia. Other areas with high percentages included western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York and southern Mississippi.
Once I figured out which parts of the country had the highest racially charged search rates, I could test whether Mr. Obama underperformed in these areas.
Add up the totals throughout the country, and racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote. In other words, racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally.
Yes, Mr. Obama also gained some votes because of his race. But in the general election this effect was comparatively minor. The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate. Increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama’s totals.
If my findings are correct, race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012. Most modern presidential elections are close. Losing even two percentage points lowers the probability of a candidate’s winning the popular vote by a third. And prejudice could cost Mr. Obama crucial states like Ohio, Florida and even Pennsylvania.
In 2008, Mr. Obama rode an unusually strong tail wind. The economy was collapsing. The Iraq war was unpopular. Republicans took most of the blame. He was able to overcome the major obstacle of continuing racial prejudice in the United States. In 2012, the tail wind is gone; the obstacle likely remains.
I wonder what you'd find if you measured other, less harsh racist terms. But then, I suppose there's no need: "From 2008 onward, “Obama” is a prevalent term in racially charged searches."
Keep in mind that this doesn't necessarily mean that only two percent of Americans are racist. After all, the vast majority of them are already in the GOP camp. But it does mean that some swing voters and Democrats are as well.
* I'm not endorsing this methodology. It's possible that it's completely wrong and this fellow has no idea what he's doing. But the conclusions don't seem surprising. The real surprise is that it wasn't a higher percentage than it was. You can bet it would have been 25 years ago. Progress.