Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Race Factor: White Racial Attitudes and Opinions of Obama

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist May 12th, 2011

In 2008, Barack Obama used massive majorities among African Americans and other nonwhites to overcome a large deficit among white voters and win the presidency. Thirty months later, opinions about his performance remain deeply divided along racial lines. Moreover, persistent questions about Obama’s place of birth and religion have raised the question of what role racial attitudes are playing in shaping opinions of Obama among white Americans. Are whites evaluating Obama differently from the way they would evaluate a white Democratic president with a similar policy agenda?

Until now, debates about the influence of racial attitudes on opinions of Obama have been severely hampered by a lack of survey data including relevant questions. However, the availability of a new data set now makes it possible to directly examine the impact of racial attitudes on whites’ evaluations of President Obama.

The data used in this article come from the October 2010 wave of the American National Election Study Evaluations of Government and Society Survey (EGSS). The October 2010 survey was the first of several cross-sectional studies being conducted by ANES in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to test new instrumentation and measure public opinion between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. The surveys are being conducted entirely on the Internet using nationally representative probability samples. Respondents are members of the Knowledge Networks KnowledgePanel, an omnibus panel of respondents recruited using telephone and address-based sampling methods who are provided free Internet access and equipment when necessary.

Evaluations of President Obama were measured by two questions, a five-point scale measuring positive versus negative feelings about the president and a seven-point scale measuring how strongly respondents liked or disliked him. The correlation between these two questions was a very strong .85, so I combined them into a single Obama rating scale with a range from 0 (extremely negative) to 10 (extremely positive). The mean score on this scale was 5.1 with a standard deviation of 3.6. About a third (34%) of respondents gave Obama a rating of 8 through 10 while 31% gave him a rating of 0 through 2. Thus, opinions of Obama were closely divided and highly polarized.

Table 1 compares ratings of Obama by whites, African Americans and other nonwhites, a group that included Latinos, Asian Americans and individuals of mixed racial heritage. The data displayed in Table 1 indicate that in October 2010 there was a sharp racial divide in opinions of President Obama. Nearly four of five African Americans (78%) gave Obama a rating of 8 or higher compared with only 27% of whites. The mean rating of Obama was 4.5 for whites compared with 8.4 for African Americans and 5.7 for other nonwhites. These results are consistent with those of other more recent surveys. For example, over five weeks of polling by the Gallup organization between April 4 and May 8 of this year, Obama’s approval rating averaged 38% for whites compared with 59% for nonwhites including 85% for African Americans.


Table 1. Ratings of Obama by Race



Source: Evaluations of Government and Society Survey, October 2010.


The main question for us here is whether whites’ opinions about Obama, including opinions about his place of birth, have been shaped by feelings of racial resentment. Fortunately, the 2010 EGSS included a series of questions designed to measure racial resentment. These questions, which have been used in a number of studies of racial attitudes, asked respondents to agree or disagree with statements regarding the condition of African Americans in the United States including whether a legacy of racism and discrimination has made it difficult for blacks to get ahead, whether blacks have gotten less than they deserve in the United States, whether blacks would be as well off as whites if they tried harder and whether blacks should be able to overcome prejudice the same way other minority groups did, without any special favors. Answers to these four questions were combined to form a racial resentment scale.

Table 2 displays the relationship between the racial resentment scale and ratings of Barack Obama among whites. Since ratings of Obama, like those of every recent president, were strongly related to both party identification and ideology, I also show the relationship between the racial resentment scale and ratings of Obama among Democratic and Republican identifiers including leaning independents, and among liberals, moderates and conservatives. Ideology here is measured by a scale based on liberal-conservative identification along with eight questions about current policy issues.


Table 2. Average Rating of Obama among Whites by Racial Resentment



Source: Evaluations of Government and Society Survey, October 2010.

Note: Leaning independents included with Democratic and Republican identifiers.


The results in Table 2 show that racial resentment was strongly related to ratings of Obama and that this relationship persists even after controlling for party identification and ideology. Regardless of party identification or ideology, whites who scored high on the racial resentment scale had substantially more negative opinions of Obama than those who scored low on the racial resentment scale.

In addition to its impact on overall evaluations of President Obama, the data displayed in Table 3 show that racial resentment had a strong impact on beliefs about his place of birth. While recent polling indicates that doubts about whether President Obama was born in the United States have diminished since he released his “long form” Hawaiian birth certificate, the “birther” myth has proven stubbornly resistant to evidence. In fact, 58% of white respondents in the EGSS expressed some doubt about whether Barack Obama was born in the United States including 28% who thought that he definitely or probably was not born in the United States. However, only 28% of whites who scored low on racial resentment harbored doubts about Obama’s place of birth compared with 71% of those who scored high on racial resentment. And this relationship persisted even after controlling for party identification and ideology. Thus, 51% of Democrats and 49% of liberals who scored high on racial resentment expressed doubts about Obama’s birthplace compared with only 18% of Democrats and 9% of liberals who scored low on racial resentment. Similarly, 83% of Republicans and 81% of conservatives who scored high on racial resentment expressed doubts about Obama’s birthplace compared with only 57% of Republicans and 55% of conservatives who scored low on racial resentment.


Table 3. Doubts about Obama’s Birthplace among Whites by Racial Resentment (Percentage Unsure Obama Born in U.S.)



Source: Evaluations of Government and Society Survey, October 2010.

Note: Leaning independents included with Democratic and Republican identifiers.


Conclusions

The evidence from the 2010 EGSS shows that partisanship and ideology were the strongest predictors of overall evaluations of President Obama and opinions about his place of birth among white Americans. However, regardless of party or ideology, whites who scored high on racial resentment had more negative opinions of Obama and were more likely to harbor doubts about whether he was born in the United States than whites who scored low on racial resentment. These results indicate that Barack Obama’s race remains a major influence on how he is perceived and evaluated by the white Americans.