Are Perceptions of Election “Rigging” Racialized?

To assess racial attitudes, we used responses to four survey items measuring racial resentment (Kinder & Sanders, 1996). These items ask whether a legacy of racism and discrimination has made it difficult for Blacks to get ahead, whether Blacks have gotten less than they deserve in the United States, whether Blacks would be as well off as Whites if they tried harder and whether Blacks should be able to overcome prejudice the same way other minority groups did, without any special favors. The higher the score the respondent received on this measure of racial resentment, the less sympathetic toward Blacks he or she was.

We then looked at the relationship between racial resentment and perceptions of electoral fairness, while controlling for several background variables like age, gender, income, and education (so that we could really focus on the role of racial resentment in particular). Since all of us may be inclined to doubt the legitimacy of an election in which a candidate with views opposed to our own won, we also included controls for identification with the Republican Party and ideological conservatism. We found that Whites high in racial resentment were less likely to believe that the 2008 election was conducted fairly, even after accounting for their party loyalties and ideological views. To be sure, the effect of racial resentment was weaker than that of party membership, but it was comparable in magnitude to the effect of ideology.

These results are consistent with our argument, but they do suffer from one shortcoming: the racial resentment measure is the subject of much controversy among political psychologists, with some arguing that it is hopelessly confounded with individualistic values that have nothing to do with race, such a strong belief in self-reliance and minimal government (e.g., Sniderman & Tetlock, 1986). To address this problem, we repeated our analysis with a measure of the degree to which respondents stereotyped African Americans as less intelligent and hard-working than Whites. If anything, our results were even stronger when we used this alternate racial-attitude measure: respondents who negatively stereotyped African Americans were less likely to see the 2008 election was fair, and the effect of stereotyping was greater in magnitude than the effects of both Republican partisanship and ideological conservatism.

In order to ensure that this pattern of results was not unique to the first election where Obama was a candidate, we conducted the same analysis using data from White respondents to the 2012 American National Election Study. Our results suggested that Obama’s first term as president did nothing to ameliorate the racialization of electoral-fairness judgments. In fact, we found that both racial resentment and stereotyping were stronger predictors than party identification and ideology of seeing the 2012 election as unfair. For example, the impact of racial resentment on perceptions of unfairness was twice as large as the impact of Republican partisanship, whereas the impact of stereotyping was more than four times larger than that of partisanship.

Importantly, these results appear to be unique to the 2008 and 2012 elections. For comparison, we looked at data from two other recent elections where Barack Obama was not on the ballot, using the 1996 and 2000 American National Election Studies. These were the most recent pre-2008 surveys we could find that included both racial-attitude and electoral fairness measures. In both of these years, we found virtually no relationship between racial attitudes and fairness judgments. For example, the relationship between negative stereotyping of African Americans and perceptions of electoral unfairness in both years was much smaller than it was in 2008. Thus, the racialization of electoral fairness judgments is a recent development, and one that appears to be tied to Obama’s historic victories in 2008 and 2012.

So, where does this leave us? In the heady days following the 2008 election, a common theme was that President Obama’s historic victory may have signaled the arrival of a “post-racial” America. However, social science research suggests that, if anything, President Obama’s election has demonstrably increased the near-term relevance of racial concerns (Tesler, 2016). Our results indicate that the spillover of racialization may not be limited to normally contested policy arguments and vote decisions, but may also threaten certain citizens’ confidence in the integrity of bedrock political institutions like elections. Racial animus is perhaps more consequential than ever, and its influence may extend even to perceptions of the political system as a whole.



Barreto, M., Nuño, S., & Sanchez, G. (2009). The disproportionate impact of voter-ID requirements on the electorate—new evidence from Indiana. PS: Political Science and Politics, 42, 111–16.

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