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How Unconscious Racial Attitudes Could Affect Presidential Vote

Unconscious Racial Attitudes Could Affect Presidential VoteA new study shows that racial attitudes are already playing a substantial role in the upcoming presidential election.

Led by psychologists at the University of Washington, the study shows that between January and April 2012 voters who favored whites over blacks — either consciously or unconsciously — also favored Republican candidates over President Barack Obama.

“People were saying that with Obama’s election race became a dead issue, but that’s not at all the case,” said lead investigator Dr. Anthony Greenwald, a psychology professor.

The study’s findings show that many voters may vote against Obama because of his race. And while they may cite the economy or other reasons for their choice, a contributing cause could be their conscious or unconscious racial attitudes, he said.

“Our findings may indicate that many of those who expressed egalitarian attitudes by voting for Obama in 2008 and credited themselves with having ‘done the right thing’ then are now letting other considerations prevail,” said collaborator Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology professor at Harvard University.

In the study, a majority of white voters showed a pattern labeled “automatic white preference” on a measure of unconscious race bias. Previous studies indicate that close to 75 percent of white Americans show this implicit bias, the researchers note.

In a study done just prior to the 2008 presidential election, Greenwald and colleagues found that race attitudes played a role in predicting votes for the Republican candidate John McCain.

The 2012 data, collected from nearly 15,000 voters, show that race was again a significant factor in candidate preferences

In an online survey, Greenwald asked voters about their political beliefs, how warmly they felt toward black and white people, and which presidential contender they preferred. Because the survey was conducted in the first four months of the year, it included the five main Republican hopefuls — Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum — as well as Obama.

Greenwald also measured unconscious race attitude using the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a tool he developed more than a decade ago to gauge thoughts that people don’t realize they have. Different variations of the test measure implicit attitudes about race, gender, sexuality, ethnicities and other topics, he said.

Greenwald found that favoritism for Republican candidates was predicted by racial attitudes, both the voters’ self-reported views and their implicit biases measured by the IAT.

“The study’s findings raise an interesting question: After nearly four years of having an African-American president in the White House, why do race attitudes continue to have a role in electoral politics?” Greenwald said.

He suspects that Obama’s power as president in 2012, compared with his lesser status as candidate in 2008, may have “brought out race-based antagonism that had less reason to be activated in 2008.”

Another possibility is that Republican candidates’ assertions that their most important goal is to remove Obama from the presidency “may have strong appeal to those who have latent racial motivation,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald and his research team will continue to collect voters’ attitudes about the presidential candidates as part of their Decision 2012 IAT study. Now that Mitt Romney has emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee, the researchers are modifying their survey to focus on voters’ comparisons of Romney with Obama.

They plan to post summaries of the data each month until the November election. Anyone can take the test online here.

Source: University of Washington

Political photo by shutterstock.

How Unconscious Racial Attitudes Could Affect Presidential Vote

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). How Unconscious Racial Attitudes Could Affect Presidential Vote. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 8 May 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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