RACE TO THE FINISH: “Polarization” then and now!


Part 2—Plus, the AP’s improbable claims: Jon Cohen is polling director for the Washington Post. Last Friday, he built a front-page news report around an exciting hook:
COHEN (10/26/12): The 2012 election is shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988, with President Obama experiencing a steep drop in support among white voters from four years ago.
As it turns out, Obama’s “steep drop in support among white voters” amounts to maybe five points, a quite underwhelming amount. Meanwhile, is this election more “polarized along racial lines” than any election since 1988?

While we’re at it, is this election “polarized along racial lines” at all?

It all depends on what the meaning of “polarized along racial lines” is! Based on his final paragraph and one accompanying graphic, Cohen seems to be referring to the gap between Obama’s level of support from white voters and his level of support from nonwhite voters.

There is always such a gap in our White House elections. That said, the gap this year is larger than usual, largely for reasons which have been explained about three million times now.

Cohen seems to be saying that the gap is larger this year than in any election since 1988. It seems to us that he's understating. The following data are drawn from two different parts of Cohen’s report:
Percentage of the vote, white voters and nonwhite voters:
Michael Dukakis 1988:
White voters: 40 percent
Nonwhite voters: 79 percent
Barack Obama 2012 (as recorded in current Post poll):
White voters: 37 percent
Nonwhite voters: 80 percent
As you can see, the gap is actually larger today than it was in 1988. If that’s the metric Cohen is using, this election is actually “more polarized along racial lines” than any election since 1984!

(In 1984, Mondale got 34 percent of the white vote and something exceeding 80 percent of the nonwhite vote. He got 91 percent from black voters, 66 percent from a substantially smaller group of Hispanic voters. We’re using Roper data.)

Whatever! Cohen had an exciting hook, however poorly it was explained and applied. And after all, this is only race, the most destructive force in all of American history. Who needs accuracy, clarity, moderation when discussing this tired old topic? Why not open with that exciting hook—a hook which makes tired blood flow?

Do Cohen’s data really mean that this election is “more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988?” Do they mean that this election is “polarized along racial lines” at all? For ourselves, we’d stay away from that eye-catching word, though journalists like to use it in various contexts.

(Do you remember when Hillary Clinton was said to be highly “polarizing?” In our view, “polarization” often conveys a great deal of heat and a lot less light.)

In fact, the last presidential election—the election held in 2008—actually was “more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988,” if we apply Cohen’s metric. In 2008, Obama got 43 percent of the white vote, 80 percent from nonwhites. That fell short of the gap achieved by Dukakis. But it was the largest such gap in any election since then.

But so what? Euphoria reigned in 2008 when we elected our first black president. No one felt the need to declare or observe how “polarized” we allegedly were. Both before and after that year’s election, Cohen wrote lengthy reports about the Post’s polling without mentioning the fact that 2008 was shaping up to be, or had turned out to be, “more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988.” Through an act of will, Cohen managed to report the way blacks, whites and Hispanics had voted without feeling the need to tell the world that the election had been more polarized than any since 1988.

But that was then—and this is now. Now, a different hook is employed, a hook which makes tired blood course through jaundiced veins.

Is this campaign “more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988?” In the narrow sense, the gap among white and nonwhite voters may end up being larger than at any time since 1984. In the broader sense, the gap was larger than normal four years ago—larger than at any time since 1988!—but Cohen took a different approach to his reporting.

Do you feel that something essential was being withheld from you at that time?

As a general matter, hooks and frameworks are in the eye of the journalistic beholder. To our taste, this particular hook conveys a great deal more heat than light. Everyone knows why Hispanic voters are trending away from the GOP—and everyone knows why black voters support Obama to a slightly higher degree than they normally do in the case of the Democratic candidate.

Nor should anyone be surprised by that five-point drop in Obama’s white support—although the blood may begin to flow if we’re told that the drop is “steep.”

That said, some journalists love the excitement of race—and some of us liberals love race too. When employed correctly, race can let us white liberals puff ourselves up; we get to pose as racial heroes or at least as racial savants. In some cases, this has occurred in the past few days as a new report emerged from the Associated Press, one of our least competent journalistic organizations.

In recent years, we liberals have learned to roll our eyes at the AP’s work. Its work is often quite underwhelming, we liberals have sadly learned.

Quite correctly, we liberals have learned to doubt the AP. Until it produces a pleasing report about race, in which case we rush to affirm the org’s intellectual greatness.

In the case of its new report about race, the AP is extending a bungled type of reporting it has done several times in the past. On an intellectual basis, the AP’s report is extremely weak, as AP reports often are.

But if the AP’s report is weak, what can we say about the lofty academics upon whose work the report is based? For ourselves, we’ll only say this:

The professors have failed us many times in the past. In this case, some of the professors’ work borders on outright fraud.

Tomorrow: What the AP said

For those who want to read ahead: We liberals tend to believe the professors, especially when they say the sorts of things we like.

But good God! In this new companion report, the Associated Press describes the academic surveys on which its recent report about race is based. At one point, the AP links to an academic account of the way its reports on race got started in 2008.

The report to which the AP links appeared in Public Opinion Quarterly. It was written by five academics, including professors from Stanford and Michigan.

The report pretends to explain how this series of AP reports got started. Incredibly, this is the way these academics begin their explanation:
PASEK ET AL (2009): The presence of an African-American candidate on the ballot running for President in 2008 raises the possibility that the election outcome might have been influenced by anti-African-American racism among voters. This paper uses data from the Associated Press-Yahoo! News-Stanford University survey to explore this possibility, using measures of both explicit racism (symbolic racism) and implicit racism (the Affect Misattribution Procedure)...

Long before election day 2008, long before the country even knew who the major parties’ nominees for President would be, forecasting models predicted a win by the Democratic Party's candidate. These predictions were based upon a common set of indicators, including the health of the national economy and approval of the incumbent President. The average predicted vote share for Barack Obama across the 9 models shown in table 1 was 53.3 percent, a little smaller than the 53.7 percent that President Obama eventually earned...

But during the summer of 2008, the numerous polls being reported by the news media did not find an Obama lead. For example, as shown in figure 1, the ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll documented essentially no difference between the candidates’ share of the vote among likely voters until late September. Why was this? Even during the summer, the national economy was doing badly and in serious decline, the United States was involved in two wars that were not obviously succeeding at achieving their goals, and approval of President Bush was remarkably low. Furthermore, the proportion of the nation that called itself Republicans had been declining steadily over the prior months. These and other key factors that are thought to influence election outcomes pointed toward a greater Obama lead than was being observed.

Faced with this puzzle, a team of researchers at Stanford University and the Associated Press worked together to generate a series of hypotheses about what might explain Mr. Obama's lagging performance and to test those hypotheses with data from a new survey.
That third paragraph is larded with self-contradiction and factual errors. But good God! That highlighted claim is truly amazing: “But during the summer of 2008, the numerous polls being reported by the news media did not find an Obama lead?”

In fact, Obama led in almost all national polling during the summer of 2008, a fact you can relive here. And yet, the professors said precisely the opposite in their report! They then said “this puzzle” explains why Stanford and the AP joined forces to produce these reports about race.

They wantred to examine a puzzle. A puzzle which didn't exist!

(Just for the record, there was no ABC/Washington Post tracking poll in the summer of 2008.)

“During the summer of 2008, the numerous polls being reported by the news media did not find an Obama lead?” In what universe can five professors make such a claim in an academic journal? With no one saying a word about it, even several years later? In what universe could the AP still promote this nonsensical claim as the rationale for its equally absurd reports about race?

That ridiculous claim was made in this universe, by a group of academics who couldn’t write four paragraphs without engaging in an orgy of self-contradiction and factual error. Some of those same academics performed the strikingly clueless work behind that new AP report.

Despite their lofty academic standing, their work was comically bad, as we’ll see in the next two “jours,” as professors may say when in France.


  1. The academic study of supposed "implicit racism" has been widely criticized by conservative blogs. E.g.,

    The "series of statements" with which participants are asked to agree or disagree are ones that presuppose a left-multiculturalist worldview. Example: "Irish, Italians, Jewish, and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors." That the researchers regard this as an antiblack sentiment tells you a lot about their political attitudes but nothing about the racial attitudes of survey participants. (Back in 2010, we dissected a survey that used the exact same language to impugn the Tea Party as racist.)

    What about "implicit racism"? Has anyone ever experienced this in real life? No--by definition, because if it is experienced, it's no longer "implicit." Can we really infer anything from people's feelings about "an image of a Chinese character"? (Logograph? Cartoon? The article doesn't even say.) These tests "measure" a phenomenon that may not even exist, much less be quantifiable. The notion of "implicit racism" is a political opinion dressed up as a scientific hypothesis.

    1. The fact that something has been "widely criticized by conservative blogs" only increases its believability and likelihood of being true. I would not be surprised to see conservative blogs criticize an assertion that the sky was blue if it were someone vaguely liberal making the claim. Conservative blogs have criticized the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming, President Obama's nationality and ideology, and even long-standing and well-supported science such as the theory of evolution.

      It's interesting that the WSJ blogger claims that the survey questions "presuppose a left-multiculturalist worldview." One would have to conclude that he would prefer survey questions that presupposed a "right-monoculturist worldview," which to me is highly instructive. I believe a right-monoculturist worldview was the hallmark of a particular political movement of the 1930's. Its name will come to me in a moment.

      Also, something being "implicit" does not mean it is not experienced. Racial attitudes are political attitudes, because racism causes and affects political choices; and only the most obtuse person would contend that racism can avoid having such a pernicious effect.

      I'm sure there are a great many people who have experienced "implicit racism" in real life; though perhaps none of the bloggers at the Wall St. Journal have done so.

  2. I hope Bob addresses this from the NYT:

    Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr. Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further.

    The lie that Romney wants to "eliminate it" ("it" being disaster coordination)is evidenced in the next sentence by Romney's stated position that emergency management (disaster coordination) is ideally done by the states.

    How can it get this dumb? ARE they this dumb or do they think their readers are? When "I think disaster coordination should be done by states" is thought to mean the same as "I want to eliminate disaster coordination" we're in a very dumb time.

    1. This one is popping up among lameo Mitt defenders all over the place. It means dim Mitt wants to eliminate it on a federal level. Duh.

    2. "Duh" indeed. But that's not what the article states.

    3. Indeed. The fact that Mitt Romney has been running for the Federal office of President for several months is no clue at all that he was talking about eliminating a Federal program; and how are the readers of the NYT supposed to know that the President of the United States cannot eliminate programs at the state level?

    4. Not only did Romney not propose eliminating disaster management, he didn't even propose abolishing FEMA. The New York Times is pathetic. See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204840504578088761680874882.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_MIDDLETopOpinion

  3. Funny, Glen Beck's race baiting , even as it influences and is approved by high profile conservative thinkers like David Mamet can be dismissed is a sentence or two as "unfortunate." But this stuff you really have to take apart.

    1. David Mamet is a "high profile conservative thinker" now? I thought he was a playwright. I don't consider Michael Moore a "high profile liberal thinker," I consider him a high profile liberal filmmaker. There is, or used to be, a difference.

      But if an actor can be President or Governor, I guess anyone can be anything...

    2. Mamet is highly praised in con circles these days, you must have missed his last stupid book.

  4. The lead author of this piece of scholarly research, Josh Pasek, received his Ph.D. in Philosophy of Communication at Stanford in June, 2011. This is a very young professor, as professors go.

    Actually there were ABC News/Washington Post polls in 2008, though they weren't called "tracking polls." If you look at the graph in the Pasek et al article, it is the caption that refers to "tracking;" the label on the graph itself merely says "ABC News/Washington Post Polls." That indicates to me that it might be a case of sloppy editing; and since the graph is not really sourced it's impossible to judge its accuracy (though it certainly appears to be off). Also note that the graph indicates a solid, steady Obama lead for virtually all of the summer. Even their own graph in their own article contradicts their assertion that the polls didn't indicate an Obama lead!

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