Menus Subscribe Search

Studying Flags, Pins, Hope From 2008 Election

• October 27, 2011 • 4:00 AM

The Stars and Stripes are subliminal, class cleavages are overrated, and other academic analyses we should consider from the last election.

I Pledge Allegiance to the GOP Flag
The flags of the United States of America and the Civil War-era Confederate Army have somewhat different symbolic associations. But recent research suggests exposure to the Stars and Stripes and the Confederate flag may have had the same effect on voters during the 2008 presidential election: A decreased likelihood of voting for Barack Obama.

An experiment conducted at a major Southern university found that 108 white students who were subliminally exposed to the Confederate battle flag (the image appeared on their computer screen 20 times in 15-millisecond bursts) were less likely to support then-Senator Obama among a group of four prominent presidential candidates. Exposure to the flag did not, however, increase support for conservative beliefs and had no effect on black participants, suggesting the image triggered implicit racial bias in the white students.

Writing in the journal Political Psychology, researchers led by Florida State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger conclude the flag, “a ubiquitous symbol in the South,” appears to “increase accessibility of culturally associated prejudice.” A follow-up experiment provided more evidence of this disturbing dynamic, leading the researchers to warn: “Confederate flag exposure might lead even people low in prejudice to evaluate President Obama and other black targets in a more negative light.” Perhaps this particular pennant should come with a warning label.

Then again, the banner famously illuminated by the rockets’ red glare may also trigger an unwanted unconscious reaction. Writing in the journal Psychological Science, a research team led by the University of Chicago’s Travis Carter reports “a single exposure to the American flag shifts support toward Republicanism.” In a survey conducted during the 2008 campaign, participants for whom “a small picture of an American flag was present in the top left corner of the survey … reported a greater intention to vote for [John] McCain than did participants in the control condition,” the researchers write.

“The American flag seems to be perceived (at least in our samples) as more closely linked with the Republican than with the Democratic party,” Carter and his colleagues conclude, “and this ‘flag branding’ may be especially influential in a two-party system in which there are typically only two viable voting choices.” These results should be a red flag for Democrats.

Step Aside Sarah: It Was About the Benjamins
What were the turning points of the 2008 presidential campaign? The first that comes to mind is Senator McCain’s choice of polarizing former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, and for good reason: University of South Florida political scientist Jonathan Knuckey writes in Political Research Quarterly that her impact on voter choice was “the largest of any vice-presidential candidate” in the past three decades. But a team led by University of  Wisconsin political scientist Thomas Holbrook points to a different disaster that turned the electoral tide: the September 15 bankruptcy of financial services firm Lehman Brothers, which kicked off the worldwide financial panic.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

The Nov-Dec 2011
Miller-McCune

Nov-Dec 2011 Miller-McCuneThis article appears in our Nov-Dec 2011 issue under the title “The Audacity of Hope.” To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
Nov-Dec 2011 magazine page.[/class]

According to this analysis, there were two distinct phases of the fall presidential campaign: pre- and post-Lehman. “In effect,” the researchers write, “the collapse of Lehman Brothers made it easier for the Obama campaign to frame the election as a referendum on the Bush administration.” While the campaign “made a concentrated effort in this direction” before the Wall Street giant closed its doors, Holbrook and his colleagues argue that “the renewed focus on economic issues following the collapse provided a backdrop, against which it was easier to make anti-Bush sentiment more relevant to vote choice.”

Knocking Over a Few Inaccurate Pins
Remember candidate Obama’s awkward attempt to bowl? That night on the campaign trail cemented the notion that he was out of touch with white working-class voters — a piece of conventional wisdom that survives today, along with the belief that the Illinois senator owes his victory, at least in part, to a massive turnout of young voters.

Political scientists Andrew Gelman of Columbia University and John Sides of George Washington University contend both narratives are essentially wrong. “Ultimately, the class cleavages among white voters were just not that large,” they concluded after crunching the numbers. Obama received 43 percent of the white vote — an increase of 3 percentage points over 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry. What’s more, Obama’s gain over Kerry was roughly the same among white voters with and without a college degree.

As for the youth vote, the startling statistic did not involve turnout (which was indeed higher than average), but rather these voters’ overwhelming tilt toward the Democratic ticket. Obama beat McCain 2-to-1 among voters under 30, “a margin among any age group unprecedented in recent years,” according to Gelman and Sides. Since voting patterns established in young adulthood tend to be stable, this means his party “has likely won a majority of this cohort of voters for the foreseeable future.” For the record, this solidly Democratic group will be 22 to 34 years old next November.

Hope: The Antidote for Racism
Arguably the iconic image of the 2008 campaign was a resolute-looking Obama looming over the single word “Hope.” It turns out the winning campaign was quite savvy in its use of that uplifting emotion as its overarching theme. In the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Christopher Finn and Jack Glaser of University of California, Berkeley, studied voters’ emotional response to the two major-party candidates and how it impacted their ultimate choice. They found “the degree to which people report Obama makes them feel more hopeful” was “a strong and reliable predictor” of a vote for the Democratic nominee.

Not surprisingly, racist beliefs (as determined by a well-established test measuring unconscious bias) were a strong and reliable predictor of a different outcome. Finn and Glaser found voters with an implicit preference for whites over blacks were significantly more likely to vote for McCain. But a research team led by University of North Carolina psychologist B. Keith Payne came to a slightly different conclusion: While such voters were less likely to vote for Obama, they “were more likely to either abstain or to vote for a third-party candidate” rather than McCain.

Another set of numbers suggests whites are more likely to vote for a black man for president if their immediate environment is racially homogenous, and thus relatively free of racial friction. Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University, reports Obama’s overall share of the vote was 4.6 percent higher than John Kerry’s in 2004. But the increase wasn’t uniform: Obama did 9 percent better than Kerry in virtually all-white North Dakota, but only 1.8 percent better in Kentucky, and his percentage totals were actually below Kerry’s in several Southern states. “The largest Democratic gains over 2004 were in non-Southern states with small African-American populations,” he writes in Political Research Quarterly, adding “The likelihood that a white voter supported Obama also decreased as the African-American population of the respondent’s congressional district increased.”

Obama’s presence on the ticket did mobilize black voters, raising turnout by 5 percent over 2004 levels. But overall, these results suggest “Obama’s race was an electoral handicap, making his effective ‘hope appeal’ all the more essential,” as Finn and Glaser write. It’s said that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience; perhaps that also holds true for a second term.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.