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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.

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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.

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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.

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