12/01/2011 01:03 pm ET

Racial Bias Cost Obama Percentage Points In 2008 Election

Race was a major factor in 2008 before President Obama became the nation's first black president. But could racial bias have cost him the election?

According to a new paper from Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard University Ph.D candidate in economic, "racial animus" cost the president three to five percentage points of the popular vote during the 2008 election, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Although Stephens-Davidowitz said the disparity wasn't detrimental during Obama's first bid for the presidency, he noted that three to five percentage points would actually have a major effect on several past elections.

"The cost of racial animus was not decisive in the 2008 election," the paper states. "But a four percentage point loss by the winning candidate would have changed the result in the majority of post-war presidential elections."

Because people tend to be dishonest about their prejudices, surveys don't always accurately portray its true impact on elections. As a result Stephens-Davidowitz used Google searches of "racially charged language." He compared the amount of racially charged searches with an area's voting pattern in the 2008 and 2004 elections.

"The idea for using Google in this way was based on a number of papers studying the conditions under which individuals discuss social taboos," Stephens-Davidowitz told The Wall Street Journal via email. "Google searches provide a useful database for attitudes not easily accessed by surveys."

But race isn't the only factor that may have affected Obama's victory in 2008. The president's charm and looks also may have helped him gain 56 percent of all female voters.

Looks certainly played a role during the 1960 presidential election when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon appeared on the country's first televised debate. Nixon, who refused to wear television makeup, appeared pale and sweaty, compared to Kennedy who seemed calm and put together.

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