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Racial Salience and the Obama Vote



Barack Obama's successful campaign for president renewed both scholarly and popular interest in understanding the extent to which race remains a barrier for African American candidates in American elections. Despite a substantial body of work that indicates that African Americans do face significant barriers to winning White votes, initial interpretations of the 2008 election results suggest that the Obama vote was not depressed because of his race. In this paper, I introduce a relatively unobtrusive measure of racial salience to examine whether these initial interpretations are correct. I find that when race was a more salient factor for White voters, they were substantially less likely to vote for Obama and were more likely to think that Obama was focusing attention on African Americans during the campaign. I estimate that the salience of race for some Whites may have cost Obama as much as 3% of the White vote. Thus, this paper indicates that even in Obama's historic 2008 campaign, African American candidates continue to face barriers to winning White support.