Articles and Analysis


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 Pollster.com, 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.



Great analysis, but one nitpick: it seems to me you could read Biden's quote as consistent with your thesis. Specifically, Biden's quote could be read as implying a lot of undecideds want to vote for Obama for various substantive reasons, but are hesistating to commit because of race-based cultural issues. But that doesn't necessarily imply these people will break against Obama in the end--instead, we could imagine that they get over their race-based hesistations when it comes time to vote. And an effect like that may actually help explain late-deciders breaking a bit to Ford.



How about the fact that Obama is the least experienced, furthest left wing, serious Presidential candidate ever in the Hisotry of US presidential elections with many ties to more than questionable radical people and groups? Constantly bringing up race is just an Obama campaign tactic. Won't it be great to be accused of racism and threatened by thugs any time we question Commisar President Obama for the next four years?



I'm sure the threats and accusations will be fantastic for race relations in the US as well.



I'm still not convinced there isn't a silent vote for McCain out there. When children are called racist at school for wearing a t-shirt that says "Go Sarah Go", an elderly woman was assaulted beaten with her McCain sign, by a MALE Obama suppoter, and this incident below are common place. I'm pretty sure there are people who won't tell pollsters they are voting McCain. Oh yeah I forgot about the woman who told the Obama supporter who called her on the phone she was voting McCain and that Obama kills babies, then had the secret service show up at her door threatening her, her families and her neighbors.

Saturday, October 18, 2008
CLEARWATER (Bay News 9) — A Clearwater man’s vehicle that displayed a bumper sticker supporting John McCain has been defaced in what appears to be a hate crime, authorities say.

According to authorities, 41-year-old Frank Armstrong’s 2006 Lexus LS 430 was parked on the 1400 block of Gulf Boulevard when someone or a group of people scratched the letters “KKK” into the paint and burned a U.S. Flag on the vehicle.

Authorities say those involved also used cigarettes to burn several areas of the car and apparently urinated on the car. …

Armstrong’s vehicle displayed a bumper sticker supporting the McCain campaign and another that was anti-Barack Obama leading investigators to believe the crime was racially or politically motivated.

There is no way i would tell anyone publicly, even a pollster that i supported McCain. And i love polls. I don't know that any kid phoning people for a pollster isn't doing something else with that info or that info isn't being sold to a third party. Sorry no way.

I think there is a silent vote of "undecideds" or people who just hang up on pollsters for McCain.


Ken C:

Thanks for the analysis. I still wonder how much the difference in turnout between a Tennessee congressional race and a presidential election will impact this. Those marginal voters brought out the the presidential contest may be less informed and more likely to be swayed by a factor like race.




Lets not forget about the black Obama supporter that was harassed in a super market for wearing an Obama shirt, then was followed to his car by the McCain supporter, and was shot.


Scott in PacNW:

I'd add one more caveat: TN is not the USA. The current map shows McCain up in TN by 16 points, which is a mile away from the national average showing Obama up by 5+.

And very unlike the swing states VA, CO, OH, FL or MO.



There are angry extremists on both sides of the fence, and we can quote plenty of stories - but let's be real, they are the very FEW fringe elements - again on both sides - and not the vast vast vast majority in the middle, who may disagree, but are respectful towards each other.

Also, let's be honest again: both McCain and Obama are legitimate candidates, both patriotic, both equally American.
To suggest otherwise is ridiculous. It's a question of whose policies you agree with more, and who you think is a better leader for the next 4 (or 8?) years in this very tricky, very problematic world.

Re. the late-breaking undecided voters, my gut says they may not be thinking about race with their indecision. If they've gone THIS LONG without committing, I doubt race is a primary concern - if it was, they would have leaned away from Obama a long time ago. I suspect it's people who are really unsure about the issues, want to hear more, watch debates, decide who to 'trust,' etc. - not race based.



Like DTM, I read your analysis as shoring up Biden's claim, rather than refuting it. What he seems to be saying is that some small percentage of "late deciders" are holding out on making a decision on the grounds of race, but that ultimately they will vote Obama. Your analysis indicates that some small percentage of Ford voters - indeed, those who might seem the most "race averse" amongst his constituency - did add to his overall numbers, but did so only as "late deciders."

This does not mean that "late deciders" broke away from Ford. I also don't think that's what Biden was suggesting. I think only that he meant to say that race might be one factor still weighing on some "late deciders'" minds. In the end, they will (most likely) make the move to Obama and vote their interests over any particular racial concern, as they did with Ford.


Brian Schaffner:

I apologize if my post makes it sound like I was attempting to refute Biden. I was not. I was focused on the countless pundits who claim that the late deciders will break hard for McCain. I included Biden's quote because it was a recent statement from the VP candidate pondering the role that race may be playing in the minds of late deciders.



@ THX1138

Please don't assume that the litany recited by s.b. is fact or is even reported from an MSM source. Notice the Clearwater, FL (Bad News 9) in the intro. The () normally indicates the source, such as (AP).

Until shown otherwise, I assume that "Bad News 9" is a Drudge Report clone or wannabe that is making up accounts or culling them from wing-nut sites.

It could even be the McCain campaign itself. Listening to the call-ins on C-SPAN radio after each of the debates, the Republican callers were clearly lined up with prepared text that ususally began "I was for Obama before...." or "I was for Hillary Clinton at the beginning of the year ....." There were so many callers who prefaced their remarks with an "I was..." tale that it was pretty clear that the whole operation was one of Steve Schmidt's operations to use blatant lies to try to manipulate voters' opinions.


Post a comment

Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.