Now that we have the final outstanding votes from New York City (Super storm Sandy's effects delayed their count), we can put one myth finally to rest: Namely, that being black cost Barack Obama big numbers of votes in his two White House campaigns. I'm not saying that the president didn't lose the votes of some people because he is black. Surely he did. Overall, however, the numbers do not show a significant negative impact on his vote percentages in 2008 or in 2012.
Let's look at the data.
We can compare the percentage of votes that Obama received in his two runs for the White House with the total percentage received by Democrats in the 435 elections for the House of Representatives held on the same day in each year. The percentage of African Americans on the ballot for the House (as nominees of either major party) in 2008 and 2012 was roughly equivalent to the percentage of blacks in the United States, while whites were slightly overrepresented on House ballots.
In 2008, Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote, the exact same percentage won by House Democratic candidates. In 2012, Obama did even better by this measure, beating House Democratic candidates 51.1 percent to 49.2 percent. While it may not be a blind Coke vs. Pepsi taste test, we do have here a control group (House Democrats) and a variable (Obama), running on similar policies, where the most visible difference is race.
If being black hurt Obama, one would expect him to win a lower percentage of the vote than did his fellow Democrats as a whole running on the same day, and certainly not a higher one. I'm no Nate Silver, but even I know that those numbers mean something.
Now, let's talk about what those numbers do not mean. They don't mean we're a post-racial society, that racism is dead or any such nonsense. They don't even prove that white voters judged Obama the same way they would have a white Democratic candidate for president.
Compared to the 41 percent of the white vote received by John Kerry in 2004 (in Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's campaigns, a significant third party vote renders a comparison less useful), Obama seems to have slightly underperformed among whites.
In 2008, Obama beat Kerry's 2004 performance by 4.6 percent overall, but only by 2 percent among whites. In 2012, Obama beat Kerry's 2004 vote by 2.8 percent overall but actually got 2 percent fewer whites than Kerry had gotten, a relatively worse performance for Obama among whites than four years earlier. These numbers were offset by Obama's slightly stronger performance in his elections vs Kerry's in 2004 among non-white voters, and by the small increase in the percentage of non-white voters overall after 2004.
But I believe that Obama running even with (in 2008) and ahead of (in 2012) House Democrats does mean something very important. It suggests quite strongly that a generic non-white candidate for president starts out on at least an even footing with a generic white candidate.
Why? Here, we get into informed speculation.
Being black, white, brown, yellow or red will cause some voters to vote for a candidate and others to vote against. Skin color will also motivate some voters who would have otherwise stayed home to come out and vote either for or against a candidate. But the numbers I've cited -- taken from a sample size in the hundreds of millions on two separate occasions -- indicate that the overall effect of Barack Obama's skin color on the vote was largely negligible. That's something I doubt many of us would have believed possible before he ran for president.