Barack Obama won the 2008 election in an electoral vote landslide, but racism darn near cost him the election - and if he loses this year, it will be because of racism, so says a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.
Google search data proves it, says Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who is a candidate for a Ph.D. in economics, and wrote a post for the New York Times' “Campaign Stops” blog entitled “How Racist Are We? Ask Google.” Unfortunately, the study is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.
Before getting into the details, let's stipulate: There is no doubt that, somewhere in America, there are some people who voted against Obama because he is black. But not many – certainly not enough to cost Obama the election, which he won with a hair under 53 percent of the vote, which is 10 points more than Bill Clinton got in 1992.
But Stephens-Davidowitz argues otherwise – and says that if Obama loses his re-election bid, racism will be the reason why.
After Obama's big win in 2008, writes Stephens-Davidowitz, "Many naturally concluded that prejudice was not a major factor against a black presidential candidate in modern America. My research, a comparison of Americans’ Google searches and their voting patterns, found otherwise. If my results are correct, racial animus cost Mr. Obama many more votes than we may have realized."
Stephens-Davidowitz used Google Insights, a service which tells researchers how often words are searched in different parts of the United States:
"Can we really quantify racial prejudice in different parts of the country based solely on how often certain words are used on Google? Not perfectly, but remarkably well. Google, aggregating information from billions of searches, has an uncanny ability to reveal meaningful social patterns. 'God' is Googled more often in the Bible Belt, 'Lakers' in Los Angeles. The conditions under which people use Google — online, most likely alone, not participating in an official survey — are ideal for capturing what they are really thinking and feeling. You may have typed things into Google that you would hesitate to admit in polite company. I certainly have. The majority of Americans have as well: we Google the word “porn” more often than the word 'weather.' And 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'.”
Stephens-Davidowitz says the Google Insights Data shows that that West Virginia had the highest racially charged search rate in America, followed closely by western Pennsylvania (a region later maligned by Obama with his infamous and bigoted “bitter clingers” quote slamming small town people who own firearms and go to church) as well as eastern Ohio, upstate New York and southern Mississippi.
After ranking 200 metropolitan areas by their racially charged search data, Stephens-Davidowitz then came up with a way to compare it to the election results – a way that depends solely on his own conjecture about how many votes Obama should have gotten. In short, he assumes that Obama “should have received” more votes everywhere than John Kerry did in 2004, simply based on how much better Democratic congressional candidates did in 2008, on average, than in 2004.
The higher the racially charged search rate in an area, the worse Mr. Obama did,” says Stephens-Davidowitz. He concludes that “racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote” and “racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally.”
While admitting that Obama “also gained some votes because of his race,” he dismisses that as “comparatively minor” because “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.”
How Stephens-Davidowitz can possibly know that is unclear. Is he really prepared to say that there are no independent or Republican voters who voted for Obama because they wanted to see a person of African descent win the presidency? There is simply no way of knowing that and short of conducting a series of focus groups or polls, Stephens-Davidowitz cannot even offer any emprical evidence that his contention could be true.
He also gives no such credit to voters, especially in places like Mississippi and West Virginia, who could be similar described as “conservative, habitual voters who would have voted against any Democratic presidential candidate.”
No, to Stephens-Davidovits, if you voted for Obama and lived in areas he's focused on, it was because Obama deserved it, if you voted against him, you did so out of racism.
He doesn't even try to factor in the differences between Obama and Kerry as candidates – from their personalities and effectiveness as campaigners to their positions on issues and even to their backgrounds and experience. These matter. Kerry was a long-serving U.S. Senator with a record of accomplishment and military experience; Obama was a rookie Senator of no legislative distinction who, as an Illinois state Senator, mostly voted “present,” who never served in the military and whose pre-political career as a community organizer impressed few outside the liberal Left. Obama's avowed promise to "bankrupt" the nation's coal industry certainly had to have had an impact on West Virginia, a state where many voters are directly employed by coal.
Both candidates campaigned drastically differently as well. Kerry emphasized his experience and portrayed himself as a patriotic voice of reason. Obama, meanwhile, spouted vague platitudes with plenty of signaling that he was a man of the far left, one who was interested more in the new Democratic coalition of minorities, single women, and government employees than in the old Democratic coalition of private sector unions, rural voters and the less-educated.
Further, Stephens-Davidowitz doesn't bother to factor in the very divisive 2008 Democratic primary campaign, in which the rise of Obama the back-bencher to the nomination angered many supporters of Hillary Clinton – both women and many in the blue-collar and rural areas where Bill Clinton also found a lot of support. The very same areas where Stephens-Davidowitz asserts that Obama "underperformed" due to racism.
Surely these other factors played a role in how voters voted, but to Stephens-Davidowitz, Obama and Kerry both are Democrats, thus, both would get the same reaction from voters, and the only difference would be that 2008 was simply a better year for a Democrat to run for the White House. And when you make the scenario that simplistic, it's easy to then compare the vote totals to the Google data on racially-charged searches and come up with the conclusion that, except for racist voters, Obama would've won even bigger in 2008.
The question Stephens-Davidowitz can't answer is, how many of those race-searching voters have voted against Obama even if he had been white? Most assuredly many of them would have. Unless there is a strong third party candidate, at least 40 percent of the electorate will vote against the Democrat (and another 40 percent against the Republican) every time.
When you look at it that way, what you realize is, if racism cost Obama any votes – it potentially cost him Democrat votes, not Republicans, since the vast majority of Republicans weren't going to vote for the Democratic nominee, period.
But that's not the narrative Stephens-Davidowitz is trying to construct. And having constructed his conclusion based on data sets from two drastically different time periods, as well as his own conjecture, Stephens-Davidowitz then drops the bomb:
"Race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012,” he says, adding that “prejudice could cost Mr. Obama crucial states like Ohio, Florida and even Pennsylvania.”
He says Obama was “able to overcome” racism in 2008 because of the collapsing economy and the unpopularity of the Iraq war, which given him “an unusually strong tailwind.” But this year he says, “the tail wind is gone; the obstacle likely remains.”
You'd think a Ph.D. candidate in economics would note that Obama faces other obstacles in 2012, primarily the economy, an area in which Obama's policies have utterly failed. Under Obama, America has endured a record 40 months of unemployment above 8 percent. Chronically anemic job creation that has barely kept pace with population growth has forced record numbers of Americans onto food stamps, left half of all recent college graduates unable to find a good job, and caused millions of Americans to simply drop out of the work force.
There's no data anywhere which ties a specific person's voting record to their online search record, so Stephens-Davidowitz is only looking at two different sets of data and coming to a conclusion driven by his own assumptions. He went into the study looking for signs of racism, and, lo and behold, he claims to have found them.