10/19/2008 09:45 pm ET Updated 6 days ago

Race and Late Deciders: Lessons from Harold Ford's Senate Campaign

"Undecided people are having a difficult time just culturally making the change, making the move for the first African-American president in the history of the United States of America."
Joe Biden, October 18th

There has been endless speculation about the role that race will play, if any, in polling the 2008 presidential race. I highly recommend Mark Blumenthal's posts on the issue as a starting point. In this post, I wanted to address one particular question about this dynamic suggested by the Biden quote above. That is, are the remaining undecided voters--those that will make their decisions between now and November 4th--more likely to break for McCain because of an unwillingness to come to grips with voting for a black president?

We obviously won't know the answer to this question until November 4th, but perhaps we can gain some insight from Harold Ford's unsuccessful race for the Senate two years ago. Ford lost a tight contest to Bob Corker in 2006. According to, the last five polls in that race showed an average 4 point lead for Corker (50-46%). The final outcome was a 51-48% win for Corker, suggesting that late deciders made little difference.

But we can consult the National Election Pool exit poll from that contest to gain a better sense of how race might have affected late deciders (those who said they made their vote choice during the last week and a half of the campaign). As the table below indicates, it was hardly the case that late deciders flocked away from the African American candidate. In fact, Ford performed better among late deciders than he did among those who had made up their minds earlier in the campaign. (Note: The exit poll showed a virtual tie despite the fact that Corker won by 3% of the vote). Evidently the late deciders were not predominantly citizens who were unable to come to grips with voting for an African American candidate.

But what about looking for race effects where they are most likely to exist? First of all, about 10% of the late deciders in Tennessee were African American voters who are unlikely to have been susceptible to concerns about Ford's race. Furthermore, particular subgroups of white citizens are more likely to be influenced by a candidate's race compared to others. Specifically, less educated, lower income, and older whites may have been particularly likely to break against Ford at the end. We might also have expected to find such a dynamic among rural whites, particularly those living in the eastern (Appalachian) part of the state. Comparisons between early and late deciders for each of these groups appear in the table below:


The differences between early deciders and late deciders are opposite of what we would expect if there was a race effect among late deciders. Whites who decided within the last week and a half of the campaign were actually 8% more likely to vote for Ford than those who made up their minds earlier. The same pattern held for less educated whites, rural whites, and whites living in eastern Tennessee. The only two groups where Ford did not do better among late deciders was for low income whites and older whites. But even in this case, Ford performed about as well as he did with early deciders, not significantly worse.

What does this mean for the presidential race? It depends on the extent to which you think the case of Tennessee in 2006 can be applied to the 2008 presidential contest. On one hand, the demography of Tennessee would seem to make it a good place to look for race effects among late deciders. On the other hand, electing someone to the Senate in a midterm election is a bit different from electing a president. But if you believe the comparison, then the experience from Tennessee in 2006 would suggest that there is little reason to expect late deciders to break against Obama because of his race. To the contrary, Ford actually did slightly better among late deciders in 2006, something that allowed him to finish a few points closer than pre-election polling had indicated. If a similar dynamic works for Obama, he may win by a larger, not smaller, margin than the current polling suggests.