White Voters Flinch Racially in Voting Booth

In March 2008 Gregory Parks and Jeffrey Rachlinski published the article, “Expertinent: The Political Psychology of Race and Gender,” which discusses the thought process behind choosing a candidate for election. They touch on implicit decision making at the last minute in voting booths. For example, many white Americans, not wanting to be called racist, outwardly (photo: mhaithaca) support Obama but inwardly are in conflict with their decision and carry that inconsistency into the voting booth.

The article states that implicitly that, “People associate black with negative imagery.”

Obama, in his campaign, is seeking to overcome the negative associations of being African American with—among other things–images of patriotism and family, funneled through the media and especially his website, with a photo of his wife and daughters on the home page. They point out that his task in fighting racialized attacks is very difficult:

When a black leader seems to be running away from his image as a black person, that’s viewed negatively. In order to keep his base, then, he can’t deny that he’s black. It’s a thin line that he has to toe.

He must work to replace the negative racial imagery generated by the white racial frame with positive images and associations of who he really is, though all of these form a layer that is in front of the already existing, often covert, white racial frame. The positive images are evaluated by many whites through the negative white racial frame, resulting in a clash of identities, a crisis of sorts. They note:

If images of Americanness make white Americans see Obama as less American at the implicit level–while at the explicit level rivals are questioning his patriotism–then he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Since every Obama image is sifted by whites through the white racial frame, will Obama’s positive images stick, when it is already recognized that evidence refuting the frame does not affect it but evidence to support it only makes it stronger?

The reaction to act implicitly on an election decision on the basis of race is called the “Bradley Effect” (more accurately, the white racism effect) referenced to the New Hampshire primary:

The tendency for poll numbers to overstate support for a black candidate in a black vs. white election. The states that showed the paradigmatic Bradley effect are New Hampshire, California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The states that showed the reverse effect are Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.

The “Bradley Effect” is a perfect example of frontstage racism versus backstage racism where voters appear to support Obama or another black candidate in their public comments, like to pollsters, but inside or with relatives and friends they harbor or espouse racist views that keep them from voting for that candidate in the backstage or the voting booth.

~ Amanda & Hannah

Amanda and Hannah are advanced undergraduate students at Texas A&M University doing a major research project on the numerous racial aspects of the current U.S. presidential campaign–with a special focus on the unique reality and impacts of having the first Black candidate for a major political party in the campaign. They will be guest blogging with us on their research findings over the next few months. ~ Joe


  1. Kudos to Amanda and Hannah for the good work. It would be great if we had some idea of the regional aspect of such behavior. My suspicion is that, as a whole, in white homogeneous states, you see less of this and vice versa in states with more diversity. Although, the recent NH primary might prove that incorrect. Will the research factor in how much race is explicitly a factor in the campaign? In other words, while there won’t be any (or many) explicit appeals to race in this campaign, the very nature of Obama’s candidacy injects race into the campaign. How will we be able to disentangle votes for McCain for racial reasons and votes for McCain purely for policy reasons?

  2. Hannah

    According to the article we used:

    The states that showed the paradigmatic Bradley effect are New Hampshire, California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The states that showed the reverse effect are Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.

    Notice it is the blue states with more homogenous populations that are showing the Bradley Effect more than the Southern red states with higher populations of black Americans. Pretty interesting.

    I think that this is because in the Southern states, there are fewer white democrats. Most whites from these regions will probably vote for McCain, and probably voted in the Republican primary. They have no reason to say that they support Obama and then not vote for him, they just say they won’t support Obama.

    As for your last question in the comment (very great and provoking, I really appreciate it!) I am not sure. I think that if we look at the people who voted for Hillary in the primary, and then for McCain in the election, we might be able to attribute these to racial reasons due to the vast differences in policy. If you have any suggestions, I would gladly accept them! I will have to research more on how to do research on this =)

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