Episode 14: How Racial Stereotypes Impacted Voting for Obama and Trump
White racial attitudes play a strong role in voter attitudes from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, but whites think it’s black voters who decide based on race. Darren Davis finds a racial double standard, where racially resentful whites think blacks vote based on race alone. Randall Swain finds Trump benefited from white racial stereotypes and attracted those unconcerned about police use of force against Blacks. Both say racial attitudes increasingly divide the American electorate.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, racial stereotypes in voting, Obama, Trump and voter racialization. From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
White racial attitudes play a strong role in voter attitudes, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. But whites think it’s black voters who decide based on race. New research finds a double standard. I talk to Darren Davis of Notre Dame about his new study with David C. Wilson published in Public Opinion Quarterly called, “The Racial Double Standard Attributing Racial Motivations in Voting Behavior.” They find that racially resentful whites think African Americans vote based on race alone. Donald Trump benefited from similar white racial attitudes.
I also talked to Randall Swain of Eastern Kentucky University about his new research published in the Journal of African American studies, “Negative Black Stereotypes, Support for Excessive Use of Force by Police and Voter Preference for Donald Trump,” during the 2016 presidential primary election cycle. Do people make voting decisions based on candidate views and experiences, or on identities?
Darren Davis says American voters think the process works very differently for whites and blacks.
Davis: People seem to reduce very complex decisions to very simplistic motivations, to African Americans that are centered around raise. My colleague and I David Wilson thought it was a clear indicator of a racial double standard, in which blacks in particular are viewed very differently from other groups. So this is the nature of the article, that there are certain attributions that are being made to African Americans that are not being expressed toward other groups. Another important finding is that this seems to be driven by racial prejudice or what we consider to be racial resentment.
Grossmann: They qualify these views a bit, but still found people thought blacks mainly voted based on race.
Davis: In the study of racial attitudes, you always have to be concerned about the extent to which people are willing to give you their candid and honest answers. So we tried to soften the language in several of our experiments to get people to give us sort of honest and open attitudes. We know that when you ask about race there’s always a dread of social desirability and political correctness that can be associated with asking these types of items in a survey.
So those are our expectations. We expected to find a double standard, meaning that we expected to find that people would attribute certain types of motivations to African Americans that they wouldn’t attribute to others. We didn’t expect to find there to be such large differences. We expected there to be a double standard with African American motivations.
Grossmann: Davis and Wilson expected expected to find the attitudes extended to other minority groups, but they did not.
Davis: We expect that based on social identity theory, that perceptions of out-group that lead to sort of this out-group homogeneity, in the sense that people don’t see out-groups as complex individuals, and that they also perceive to make certain attributions intrinsically about their motivations. You know, African Americans tend to be sort of the most identifiable out-group that we expect this to occur more frequently in perceptions toward African Americans, but we also thought that perhaps other groups would perceive out-groups in that same way. Particularly with Hispanic voters, but the perception of Hispanic voters in terms of these attributions are not as severe as they are toward African American voters.
Grossmann: They asked about both support for candidates in general, and specifically about support for Obama, but found the same results.
Davis: The results were surprisingly consistent for perceptions of African Americans. Whites thought blacks would have voted for Obama, and blacks didn’t think that Obama was the best candidate. So there’s a surprising consistency across the generic questions, the generic experiments and the specific Obama experiment.
Grossmann: But the attitudes about Obama voting did extend to his white voters as well.
Davis: They would include those African American voters and people who were inclined to vote Democratic, that they were in particular being pressured to vote for Barack Obama, because he was black.
Grossmann: The double standard was predicted by Davis’ and Wilson’s measure of white racial resentment.
Davis: We started off with about 15 or 20 different measures of racial resentment and we narrowed that down to about four or five. Our measures tend to pack into sort of a sense of deserving-ness, of black’s demands, and also the extent to which those demands come at the expense of whites. So we were very attuned to sort of what that threat is regarding race. So this is how we can see racial resentment that pretty much, there’s a threat that white’s perceive, and that this leads to a certain backlash or resentment toward African Americans.
Grossmann: Davis says white attitudes about blacks as a political threat crystallize in their views of black voters.
Davis: There’s a sense of anger among whites, that is not captured by racial prejudice, that is probably better described as resentment regarding the deservingness of the threat to certain types of traditional values, but most importantly even that whites themselves perceived this as a cost to them.
Grossmann: They say some blacks, just like some whites, may indeed vote based on shared racial identity.
Davis: We do not doubt that there are some African Americans who may actually vote based on race and race only. But for the majority of African American voters, race is perhaps heuristic, it is perhaps a queue, is perhaps a queue same way that partisanship and ideology and other things serve as heuristic in different queues and labels.
So we do not doubt that actually exists, but in our experiments we didn’t ask about those other queues, we strictly asked about motivations for voting for the out-group.
Grossmann: But the history of unsupported black Republicans suggest it’s mostly a racial stereotype that blacks vote based on race.
Davis: People don’t generally make that assumption, that you know, partisanship and partisan queues are very very important to African Americans, as they are to most other voters. But the point of the paper is that people do not attribute such sort of complexity or deliberative or informative voting to African Americans.
Grossmann: Randall Swain says the rise of Donald Trump has to be put in the context of longstanding white racial attitudes.
Swain: These things do not happen in a vacuum. They all belong to a part of a collective memory, that a true politician could use in a very subtle way to mobilize votes and vote support.
Grossmann: Swain finds that anti-black stereotypes and acceptance of police violence against blacks, predicted Trump support.
Swain: During the 2016 presidential primary, voters who voiced support for Donald Trump were more likely to minimize racial violence, police practices such as particularly as it pertains to excessive use of force whenever police deal with black Americans. So viewed another way, we could say during the 2016 primary election cycle, Trump voters were more likely to support instances when police use force, whenever they encounter black Americans. And so, I think that’s everything I [inaudible 00:08:35] in that study. That’s the most significant finding.
Grossmann: The context was the rise the Black Lives Matter movement, and this protest of police killings.
Swain: You have the Black Lives movement that really took off as a result of instances of police brutality, African Americans being killed while in the process of being apprehended. So of course there’s a backlash to that and a great amount of debate and discourse around that backslash has to do with to what extent are the deaths an excessive use of force against mostly black men if warranted by police or truly indeed excessive.
Grossmann: Swain says Trump channeled these white racial attitudes rather than created them.
Swain: This is a phenomenon or a factor that actually precipitated Donald Trump. Donald Trump was just smart enough to harness it. So any candidate or would be candidate who had the wherewithal to kind of harness it and the willingness to harness those sentiments in society, would have benefited. Clearly we cannot say that Donald Trump is in any way, shape or form the instigator the originator, true he does have a record of exhibiting racial animus and discrimination and prejudice against Black Americans based on the stories that we’ve heard about his orientation toward just a number of factors that have come out in the news.
And so, when we consider that, we have to first and foremost just keep in mind that there really is no Donald Trump really without the Barack Obama Presidency. In other words, if you think about how for a significant segment of American society, the Obama Presidency represented the combination of years and years of hopes and dreams and aspirations, black Americans, white Americans and Americans of all stripes and colors, creeds and backgrounds. But we must also keep in mind that for a significant portion of a different segment of American society, his ascension to the Presidency in 2008, also represented a change in direction for American society, that so many obviously were not really comfortable with in terms of demographic sociocultural changes that Obama represented, and so we kind of see evidence of this throughout Obama’s presidency, the backlash to that.
So Donald Trump, again, he recognized that, kind of in the way that Ringling Barnum & Bailey, you know, who had a circus, so years and years ago, centuries ago, he recognized what a mood was, what the desires of the populous was, and he kind of captured that.
Grossmann: The history of law and order campaigns using racial stereotypes goes back a long way.
Swain: What we’ve seen there is a subtle racial queue that basically plays on media portrayals of Black Americans as being criminal. Richard Nixon did it, and of course this is a staple of southern politics. Basically that there is a racialized component to the criminal justice system. This is verified by the disproportionate number of African Americans who are under the control in some way, shape or form, of the criminal justice system. So I think this is why Donald Trump went to great efforts to tap this election and law and order from the first things that he said when he gave his nomination speech, I’m a law and order candidate, and I’m the one to fix the problems, I alone can do it. You know, everything about Trump’s campaign has had a very subtle, I should say at times overt racial implications.
Grossmann: Swain used measures of general stereotypes and attitudes toward policing, finding them all associated with Trump support.
Swain: I used two measures of anti-black stereotypes. The first measure had to do with notions about African Americans being lazy, and the other stereotype had to do with notions of Black Americans being violent. This is pretty common, and so I think this is why the [inaudible 00:13:21] study used these questions in their survey. And there may have been some others, but for me these questions were most ideally suited for what I was trying to study.
So I was interested to see how these stereotypes interacted with questions about African Americans being stopped for new reason by police and police using force when not necessary.
Grossmann: He focused on anti-black attitudes, but racial stereotypes of all kinds tend to go together.
Swain: The research shows now that [inaudible 00:13:58] tend to be very correlated, in other words people who tend to have negative views about one set of racial minorities are going to have the same set of negative views about other racial minorities as well.
Grossmann: Although Hillary Clinton did tie herself to the mother’s of the movement, Swain does not think her handling of the issue was a major electoral factor.
Swain: I don’t believe that the way that Hillary Clinton handles the Black Lives movement, to say she handled it positively or she could have been more vociferous and supporting it and more enthusiastic about supporting it, I’m not sure that would have gotten her more votes. I think that there other factors there. And again, I just think for people who are inclined to vote against her and vote for Trump, I think it was not so much about support against Clinton as it was support for Donald Trump.
I think that people who voted for Trump voted for him enthusiastically. And again, there are reasons for that, but I’m not certain that Clinton’s handling of the black lives matter was something that was a liability. I think there were other issues within her campaign that kind of cost her that election.
Grossmann: Both Swain and Davis found racial views mattered independently of partisanship. But they were also already tied up with partisan differences. Davis says Obama and Trump have only extended the polarized pattern on racial attitudes.
Davis: These partisan differences have always existed with respect to racial attitudes. However, under Obama, contrary to what other scholars may think regarding this issue, is that those partisan differences can be exacerbated under Obama. So we’re not doing really anything new, we’re not making any new theoretical arguments regarding partisanship under Obama, it’s just that the racial polarization under Obama may have exacerbated these partisan differences.
Grossmann: Swain says he fears that as a result, the Trumpian strategy remains viable going forward.
Swain: As long as someone will continue to ponder to those baser, lower sentiments, at least since 1988 or so, 1968 and 2018, it can be a lucrative and a successful campaign tactic. The question is in times for Democrats going forward is, effectively refuting some of it. The only way that you can really be effective to counteract that, is to aggressively go out and refute claims, because if you can refute those claims, and unfortunately it’s the same that you have to do this again to dilute or to mitigate the racialized component, what you have to do, is prove.
Grossmann: And Davis says these racial attitudes also leave African American candidates in a bind.
Davis: Obama certainly understood the complexities of race and building motivations and about how people would perceive him. So I think candidates are very astute to the activation of certain types of stereotypes, inhibiting certain types of negative stereotypes and I think the Obama campaign was very shrewd at actually making sure that many of the traditional African American candidate stereotypes remained dormant.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I am your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Darren Davis and Randall Swain for joining me.
Join us next time to find out how the public responds to the costs of paying for war.