01/08/2009 02:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Re: Race Over

Maybe my post yesterday on Marc Ambinder's review of race and the Obama campaign was a day early.

As soon as I returned to the keyboard after publishing the item -- which emphasizes details provided by Obama pollster Cornell Belcher on how the campaign dealt with "racial aversion" -- my RSS reader produced links to a new Carl Bialik item on the role race played in Obama's victory. It summarized another article by two political scientists, Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart, who used exit poll data to argue that “Obama won because of race — because of his particular appeal among black voters, because of the changing political allegiances of Hispanics, and because he did not provoke a backlash among white voters.”

Crucial to their argument is that Obama barely gained among white voters compared to Sen. John Kerry in 2004; Obama won 43% of white votes, compared to 41% for Kerry. That slight gain didn’t tilt the election to Obama; instead it took blacks’ and Latinos’ rising share of the electorate, coupled with Obama’s big win among both groups — far bigger than Kerry’s. (Obama won 95% of black votes and 67% of Latino votes, compared to 88% and 53%, respectively, for Kerry.)

“Had the racial composition of the electorate stayed the same in 2008 as it was in 2004, and had whites remained as supportive of Republicans as they were in 2004, Obama would still have won the popular vote, albeit by a much smaller margin,” Ansolabehere and Stewart wrote. “But, had Blacks and Hispanics voted Democratic in 2008 at the rates they had in 2004 while whites cast 43 percent of their vote for Obama, McCain would have won.”

A few hours later, Andrew Gelman chimed in with more details from his analysis of county-level voting patterns:

You can also slice up the vote swing geographically, by counties in different regions of the country, and you find that Obama did close to uniformly better than Kerry nearly everwhere, except for Republican-leaning poor counties in the South (where Obama pretty much stayed even with Kerry). The geographic patterns are striking (see graph at the end of this post).

Race matters, yes, but we're still seeing a national swing.

He added:

I think Ansolabehere and Snyder are right on the money when they write, "the results of the 2008 election challenge much of what has been conventionally thought about race and politics in America. Barack Obama has accomplished an astonishing political move [by] disproportionately energizing nonwhite voters and converting erstwhile Republican supporters within the minority community without alienating white voters."

My summary: as Carl said, the election outcome is multidimensional. Because Steve and Charles were writing a short article, they very properly focused on a single feature of the election--race. I'd say that the #1 feature of the election was a bad economy that produced a national swing toward the Democrats in general and Obama and particular. But once you want to break this down by demographics, I agree that ethnicity is the biggest factor.

Next, John Sides linked to all of the above and took issue with my post on two points. First, he interprets my post as an argument that political scientists forecast an Obama landslide on the basis of political fundamentals. "Neither the fundamentals nor the existence of racial prejudice," he writes, "should have led a sensible analyst to predict a landslide. Most political scientists certainly didn’t. I railed against the perception that this race should have been a landslide here."

The use of the term "landslide" was Ambinder's. I have to admit, I'm not sure what would constitute a "landslide" in the context of last year's election, as defined by Belcher, the unnamed "Obama advisors" he differed with or anyone else. Was Obama's 7.2% margin in the popular vote or his 365 to 173 margin in the electoral college a "landslide?" I'm not sure, although I read the Ambinder passage as implying skepticism from Belcher "in the fall" that Obama's margin would be as wide as it ultimately proved to be.

Second, Sides hears me arguing, perhaps inadvertently, that “political scientists will think they’re right no matter what happens.” Well, no, I didn't mean to imply that all political scientists tend to declare themselves right regardless of the outcome (or even that some do), only that had the outcome been different, another set of scholars somewhere would have been ready to declare (rightly), "I told you so."

Most electoral outcomes are "multi-dimensional." Rarely, if ever, are they about just one thing. And I will grant that the machinations of the campaign -- rallies, paid advertising, field organizing, etc. -- tend to be less consequential in presidential general elections, where voters get massive, direct exposure to the candidates through televised debates and a year's worth of news coverage, than in almost all other types of elections. However, I think the tendency within political science to use presidential general election forecasting models to dismiss the notion of "campaign effects" is overdone. That point aside (or perhaps on that point as well), Sides, Gelman and I mostly agree.

Finally, in the midst of writing this post, I stumbled on yet more from Obama pollster Cornell Belcher via Marc Ambinder. The latter posts a 14-page analysis (PDF) by the former produced for the Democratic National Committee based on data collected in two post election surveys. The memo includes data on "the surge among new voters of color" and much more.