The question of race and electoral politics is the subject of much speculation, but little hard evidence. Yesterday's WaPo presents the results of the first detailed survey of race and public opinion since Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee. The findings: "nearly half of all Americans say race relations in the country are in bad shape and three in 10 acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice..." The findings follow patterns in most previous surveys of race relations: namely a divergence between black and white assessments of the state of race relations in the United States. The WaPo found that most whites (53 percent) think that race relations are good, but that only a little more than a third of blacks (36 percent) agree.
The most relevant finding was on the impact of racial attitudes on white support for Obama and McCain. The WaPo constructed a "sensitivity index," combining answers to survey questions on prejudice, the existence of racial discrimination, and cross-racial friendships and found that those who ranked lowest in those three categories support John McCain two-to-one.
At the Monkey Cage, two political scientists offer different opinions on the question of the impact of race on white electoral behavior. One of the country's best scholars of race and politics, Phil Klinkner, highlights the WaPo's finding that "racial attitudes have a big impact on whites’ candidate preferences, even when you control for partisanship." His colleague John Sides, by contrast, cites three studies of white preferences for black candidates and offers a more optimistic prognosis. But those studies might not shed much light on this year's election. One comes focuses on white voters in cities whose experience with black mayors leads them to change their voting behavior, a group that accounts for a very small segment of the white electorate. Most white voters in America have never had the chance to respond to a black incumbent because they live in overwhelmingly white communities, state legislative districts, and Congressional districts. The second, of House races in 1996 and 1998 found that white voters were not less likely to vote Democratic when the candidate was black. But it is quite likely that those districts are atypical: whites who live in majority black districts are quite different than their counterparts who have chosen to live in overwhelmingly white places. The third study--of black candidates in statewide races--draws from only 12 races--is too thin.
For now, I think Phil probably has it right--but there's a lot more research to be done.