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Historic FirstsHow Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics$

Evelyn M. Simien

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780199314171

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199314171.001.0001

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The “New Black Voter” and Obama’s Presidential Campaign

The “New Black Voter” and Obama’s Presidential Campaign

(p.97) Chapter 5 The “New Black Voter” and Obama’s Presidential Campaign
Historic Firsts

Sarah Cote Hampson

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter uses data from the 2008 American National Election Studies (ANES) time series to examine symbolic empowerment and its impact on political behavior. The chapter reveals that voting in the nomination campaign—specifically, voting for the winning candidate—encouraged other forms of participation on the part of the African American electorate comprised of the newly registered and those previously registered who were similarly energized by Obama’s historic candidacy. Newcomer or not, African Americans were more likely to participate in all types of political behavior—including wearing campaign buttons, posting a lawn sign or bumper sticker, engaging in political talk for or against a candidate, donating money to the Democratic Party, and attending a speech or rally—in part because of the salience of racial group identification.

Keywords:   Barack Obama, new voter, racial group identification

There are those who say that this primary has somehow left us weaker and more divided. Well I say that because of this primary, there are millions of Americans who have cast their ballot for the very first time . . . There are young people, and African-Americans, and Latinos, and women of all ages who have voted in numbers that have broken records and inspired a nation

Barack Obama, 2008

I am not running a race-based campaign. I am rooted in the African American community, but not limited by it . . .

—Barack Obama, 2003 (quoted in Mendell 2007: 188)

Some have forgotten, but most are unaware, that Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice! Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made this fact known once he realized it was likely that Barack Obama, Democratic state senator from Illinois, would win South Carolina and defeat his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton(Popkin 2012). As Clinton put it, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in ’84 and ’88. He ran a good campaign. And Senator Obama ran a good campaign here” (Tesler and Sears 2010: 30). The Jackson-Obama reference was obviously about race. Or was it? Given the fact that South Carolina was the first primary among the Southern states and the first primary in a state where African Americans made up a sizable percentage of the voting-eligible population, Obama’s candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination brought Jackson’s (p.98) run 20 years before into the spotlight again (Bositis 2012). By juxtaposing Jackson’s primary victories in South Carolina with Obama’s win there at a pivotal moment in the campaign, Clinton sought to emphasize that Obama owed his success to high Black voter turnout in a state where they comprised a majority on the Democratic side. His objective was to downplay the implications of this win because victories in early primaries provide additional resources for citizens, especially those dissatisfied with the frontrunner and who vote strategically by using early primary outcomes as an information cue to determine the most viable alternative (Bartels 1988; Norrander 2006; Shen 2008). In this way, the South Carolina primary would create momentum for Obama and contribute to his success in subsequent contests—at least this became journalists’ and scholars’ conventional interpretation of then–Senator Obama’s win and the motive behind Clinton’s remarks (Tesler and Sears 2010; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012; Popkin 2012). The racial message in this case, whether subtle or not, was recognized as both “negative” and “inflammatory” by Obama supporters and hard core Democratic Party devotees who felt Clinton’s comments suggested that only his wife was electable, whereas in contrast Obama, similar to Jackson in 1984 and 1988, was unelectable despite his South Carolina victory (Tesler and Sears 2010; Popkin 2012: 127).

In 2008, the South Carolina contest was considered the closest thing to a “Black primary” because African Americans constituted the majority (55%) of primary voters who belonged to the Democratic Party in that state (Moser 2007). In fact, South Carolina had been widely portrayed as a Clinton-Obama battleground for Black votes—especially Black women, who were reportedly torn over the decision (Moser 2007; Simien 2009; Popkin 2012). This prompts the question why. African American women have come to represent the “new Black voter” today; however, the magnitude of their voting power has been effectively concealed and goes without mention in most academic accounts of a racial divide—that is, the differences in Black-White voting patterns over the last several decades in American presidential elections. The development of the so-called “racial divide” is one indication that African Americans see their political interests as distinct from those of White Americans (Dawson 1994; Hutchings and Stephens 2008; Simien 2009, 2013). Even when they favor the same candidate, they do so by different margins, resulting in a racial divide whereby a greater proportion of African Americans prefer the Democratic candidate. The extant literature also suggests that when the racial divide is examined by gender, African American women’s support for the Democratic presidential candidate largely accounts for the consistent claim that (p.99) African Americans in general versus African American women in particular had a decisive impact on the presidential selection process (Smooth 2006; Simien 2009, 2013).

African American voters are, by far, the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party with their support for the Democratic presidential candidate ranging from 90% in 2000 and 88% in 2004 to the all-time high of 95% in 2008 (Tate 1993; Hutchings and Stephens 2008; Bositis 2012). According to exit polls, Black voters were 13% of the national electorate in 2008 and represented approximately 1 in every 4.25 Obama voters, whereby 65% (or 15.9 million) of voting-age African Americans cast a ballot in the general election compared to 66.1% of White citizens (Lopez and Taylor 2009; Bositis 2012; Lewis, Dowe, and Franklin 2013). But the voter turnout rate among eligible Black female voters was 68.8%—that is, the highest of all racial, ethnic, and gender groups in the 2008 American presidential election (Lopez and Taylor 2009). Since 1996, the gender gap has been consistently present for African Americans, with African American women voting at higher rates than African American men by a range of 7 or 8 percentage points in 2008, and at even higher rates, about 9 percentage points, in 2012 (File 2013). As in past election cycles, African American women accounted for the majority of Black voters, who overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate: Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 (Smooth 2006; Lopez and Taylor 2009; Simien 2009). In fact, the 2008 American presidential election was the first time where the “new Black voter” outperformed her White counterparts in terms of both registration and turnout in Southern states like South Carolina with large Black voting-eligible populations, including Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana (Lopez and Taylor 2009; Simien 2009; Bositis 2012). The resurgence of this “new Black voter” in 2008, we argue, is due to the mobilizing effect of a historic first—that being in this case Barack Obama.

In sync with past definitions, the “new Black voter” is among those newly registered as well as those previously registered who were energized by Obama’s presidential campaign (Tate 1993; Simien 2009, 2013). We add a slight nuance by using the term to describe Obama supporters who not only registered, but who were more likely to vote and in other ways participate because the theory of symbolic empowerment recognizes that historic firsts bring formerly inactive people into the electoral process. We posit that support for Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries is predictive of other forms of political behavior because the outcome of the primaries helps determine who (p.100) wins the general election. Obama’s historic candidacy signaled greater access to electoral opportunities and motivated political agency among constituents whom he descriptively represented during the campaign. In this sense, Obama’s historic candidacy changes the nature of political representation because race serves a priming influence. Even though Barack Obama, like Chisholm in 1972 and Jackson in 1984, did not have the backing of several Black elected officials at the outset of his presidential campaign, he received an overwhelming amount of support from African American voters and his support among African American women was especially strong (Lopez and Taylor 2009; Simien 2009; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012). African American women were shown to cast a decisive ballot in favor of the candidate of their race when forced to choose between the most serious Black and female contenders for a major-party presidential nomination in 2008 (Simien 2009).

Given the historic significance of Barack Obama’s candidacy (and subsequent victory), gauging its mobilizing effect on the American electorate generally and African Americans specifically remains an important task. In this chapter, we recount the historic candidacy of Barack Obama for president of the United States in 2008. The goal of this chapter is threefold. First, we aim to advance the theory of symbolic empowerment by using Obama’s candidacy as an illustrative example. We believe it is both the competitive nature of the 2008 Democratic nominating contest and the symbolic value assigned to historic firsts that define the incentive structure for voting and in other ways participating in the election. Second, we intend to demonstrate the utility of that theory for examining political behavior, broadly defined, with survey data from the 2008 American National Election Studies (ANES). Along the way, we identify the very factors that made Obama appealing to voters, especially those who previously were inactive and for the first time expressed their support in various ways from donating money and attending a rally to wearing a campaign button and engaging in political talk. One factor responsible for shaping vote choice, we believe, is racial group identification (or linked fate). This lends itself to the perception that Obama is more likely than Clinton to champion the political interests of African Americans as a group once elected to office (Dawson 1994; Hutchings and Stephens 2008). Third, we write about Obama as a candidate who is both advantaged and disadvantaged on account of his maleness and Blackness. Such an appraisal of his candidacy is consistent with previous chapters, using an intersectional analysis for a pioneer cohort that paved the way for Obama’s victory. With that said, the (p.101) analysis that follows will interrogate his use of social identity categories (plural) to consider how Obama’s campaign strategy and representational style differed from those of his predecessors in ways that advanced his candidacy.

Past presidential campaigns launched by Chisholm in 1972 and Jackson in 1984 were aimed at forging interracial alliances (or rainbow coalitions) but relied heavily on a pattern of racially polarized voting. As a result of mobilizing Black voters in locales where they comprised a majority or near-majority of the population, they drew limited support from White voters elsewhere (Smith 1996). Both campaigns were considered insurgent efforts in the aftermath of the “protest” phase of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, looking back at the demands levied by Chisholm and Jackson, we can say unequivocally that their style of campaign rhetoric magnified their race and gender identities and made them radical actors. It was the political conditions of the 1970s and 1980s that warranted a style vastly different from Obama, whose own performance of Blackness illuminates, rather than obscures, their differences in electoral strategy from Black-centered to race-neutral and centrist today (McCormick and Jones 1993). While Chisholm and Jackson may have prioritized elements of their racial identity similarly, they did not experience race and gender the same way. And so, an intersectional analysis is especially useful for broadening the discourse around Black identity generally and Black male office-seekers specifically who have come to “stand for” the race as universal subject (Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2008). While Obama’s candidacy was no exception to this trend as he “stood for” the race, he did set himself apart from his predecessors on account of his campaign strategy and representational style.

Historic First: Barack Obama for President in ’08

Senator Barack Obama would be viewed and judged by most voters not on the basis of his experience as a community organizer, civil rights attorney, and Illinois state senator where he became a proponent of social welfare policies and universal health care, but as a candidate who had the ability to transcend race on the basis of his rhetoric of national unity, as well as his biracial heritage and Ivy League education (Burnside and Whitehurst 2007; Logan 2011). Shortly after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC). In it, he emphasized liberal universal themes and achieved overnight national celebrity status (Walters 2007; Ford 2009). Perhaps his (p.102) most famous remarks that evening, which encapsulated the overall message of his 2008 presidential campaign, were as follows:

. . . there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America, there is the United States of America

(Obama 2004).

Such rhetoric was aimed at satisfying diverse and often competing constituents across various racial and ethnic groups, which necessitated a broadly construed deracialized strategy that would appeal to mass audiences. The same strategy was later used by Obama’s campaign to increase his chances of electoral success and involved similar universal, race-neutral language in conjunction with the advocacy of policy measures that appealed to most segments of the American electorate regardless of race.

By focusing on quality-of-life issues such as establishing universal health care, creating equal educational opportunities, and providing full employment for the lower and middle classes, Obama increased the likelihood that said issues of shared and equal importance to Americans in general would become important references for electoral judgments. While these were issues of equal importance to African American voters and had been widely discussed within traditional civil rights organizations by their leaders, Obama was less interested in making race-specific overtures via an alternative approach (Lewis, Dowe, and Franklin 2013: 128). This type of alternative approach would have involved running a presidential campaign that appealed to Black voters directly, while simultaneously alienating White voters by emphasizing the importance, relevance, or weight accorded to racially polarizing issues. At the same time, media organizations could inject race by celebrating the historic nature of Obama’s campaign as a “first” involving the most serious Black contender for a major-party presidential nomination in U.S. history. Of course, Obama’s opposing candidate (Clinton) could do the same and capitalize on her Whiteness to establish her viability as a candidate for the office sought. Whiteness was the basis for her racialized privilege—a status that provided certain social and economic advantages that Clinton came to rely on for legitimating her campaign (Guy-Sheftall and Cole 2010). But media organizations could inject gender just as they did race by celebrating the historic nature of Clinton’s campaign as a “first” involving the most serious female contender for a major-party presidential nomination in U.S. history.

(p.103) Current academic literature tells us that in seeking high-level executive offices, Black male candidates, especially those running in biracial contests, face a more challenging electoral environment than their White opponents due to racial stereotyping and racist attitudes (Reeves 1997; McDermott 1998; Tesler and Sears 2010). That is, based solely on race, voters tend to ascribe certain characteristics to Black candidates that place them at an electoral disadvantage—for example, Obama was perceived as lacking leadership experience, less competent in or knowledgeable of foreign affairs, more liberal when it came to social welfare policies that aided the poor, and more concerned with racial issues like affirmative action and immigration reform (Sigelman et al. 1995; Smith 1996; Reeves 1997; McDermott 1998; Tesler and Sears 2010; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012; Lewis, Dowe, and Franklin 2013). Key to increasing his chances of being successful in pursuing the office of president, Obama’s campaign had to overcome the essentialist notion that because he was undeniably Black in terms of phenotype and ancestry, he could easily qualify as an “authentic” representative for the African American electorate and not the entire American electorate (Walters 2007; Ford 2009). But if the full range of his deracialized electoral strategy and representational style are to be considered, we must acknowledge how the concept of symbolic empowerment is intentionally restrictive and limited to the demographic group for whom Obama is a role model on account of his Blackness.

Here the primary focus is the axis of identity that drew the most media attention and arguably disadvantaged Obama’s candidacy—that is, the identity category that served as the basis upon which he qualified as a historic first—to support the theory of symbolic empowerment as it conceives of descriptive representation and symbolic representation as mutually reinforcing, inseparable constructs. While we view identities as fluid, provisional, and contingent upon the context to avoid a static conceptualization of difference, we must acknowledge that identity categories like race (or Blackness) can be construed as exclusionary and reify one difference while erasing and obscuring others like gender (or maleness) in the context of elections. Identity categories like race and gender are not to be understood in an essentialist way, but the power relations generated by these categories are profoundly inscribed in historical and societal terms and form the basis for hierarchal arrangements between and within groups as well as individuals in the electoral context. This important caveat acknowledges a fundamentally unresolvable tension as we proceed with our discussion of Obama’s candidacy in both raced and gendered terms.

(p.104) While U.S. politics remains a male profession, it is predominately White and male at every executive level, especially in statewide and national contests (Duerst-Lahti 2006; Carroll 2009; Lawless 2009; Hancock 2009). For this reason, there is little question as to whether a highly visible Black male politician at the top of a major-party presidential ticket could potentially transform stereotyped beliefs about the appropriateness of politics for African American men generally. But, like his predecessors, Obama’s candidacy would arouse fears, resentments, and prejudices within the American electorate—for example, lies were told (Obama is Muslim), stereotypes were reinvented (Africans Americans are dangerous and unfit to lead), popular images reanimated and parodied (the Curious George character from a well-known series of children’s books featured with a banana and the words Obama ’08 appearing beneath was used to make the connection between African Americans and apes), derogatory names were used (nigger, boy), and threats of physical violence materialized via commercial items (“Obama is my slave” appeared on decorative tiles). Make no mistake. Obama’s racial identity and other personal character traits would remain a matter of public contestation long after the general election—for example, the “Tea Party Movement,” as it is commonly known, orchestrated a number of attacks on Obama’s patriotism, religious beliefs, and citizenship status via protest rallies and social media (Caputi 20082009; Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2008; Lewis, Dowe, and Franklin 2013).

When Obama officially announced his candidacy for president of the United States, the range of associations from referential and emotional to visual that suggested he was either “too Black” or “not Black enough” figured prominently throughout the campaign via the mainstream press (Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2008; Ford 2009; Hill 2009; Augoustinos and De Garis 2012). Although, Obama was not asked to “iron shirts” or “make somebody a sandwich,” he was resented for having rewritten the playbook previously established by an older generation of Black politicians. His predecessors had relied heavily on racial bloc voting and the stylistic influence of a Black Power tradition, which involved speaking-truth-to-power, dramatic confrontation, and public spectacle for electoral success (Ford 2009; Gillespie 2010; Tate 2014). In fact, Jesse Jackson alleged that Obama was “acting White” when he blatantly refused to participate in a civil rights march to protest the imprisonment of six African American male teenagers who faced criminal charges in Jena, Louisiana (Ford 2009; Ifill 2009: 25; Simien 2011). Such a willingness to distance himself from “raising the roof” cast doubt on his racial loyalties and commitment to the civil rights struggle. It has since been argued that Obama was a viable candidate precisely for these reasons, (p.105) having implicitly promised a post-racial America via campaign rhetoric that signaled society’s institutions are “colorblind” meritocracies (Ford 2009; Gillespie 2010). Obama was neither righteous nor indignant. He adopted a race-neutral platform to appeal to as many voters as possible. At the same time, and no less importantly, Obama successfully pulled together the very type of coalition that both Chisholm and Jackson had aspired to lead, composed of college students, hard-core progressives, and political independents from various racial, ethnic, and gender groups (Liu 2010).

Unlike his predecessors, Obama defied conventional wisdom by raising the kind of money needed to become a viable presidential candidate (Jackman and Vavreck 2010). He also ran a successful campaign that was racially and culturally inclusive to combat stereotypes and assuage White fears while simultaneously retaining a Black electoral base (Gillespie 2010; Liu 2010). While Obama would initially come off as non-threatening and unifying to White voters, Black voters would question his ability to articulate their experience in the United States authentically (Ford 2009). Still, he remained racially ambiguous by not addressing the needs of Black citizens and not making concessions in exchange for their votes. Nevertheless, he was electorally supported by a majority of Black voters, to whom he remained loosely connected throughout the primary season and general election. And so, the literature on such a campaign strategy for Black electoral success has leveled the following critique: “. . . even where black support provides a critical margin, successful black candidates in majority-white electorates may not necessarily feel obligated to black voters” (Guinier 1994: 58). It has thus been argued that Black candidates cannot do both—that is, de-emphasize race and engage in racial advocacy (Persons 1993; Smith 2006; Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2009; Gillespie 2010).

Take, for example, Obama’s cancellation of an appearance at the 2007 annual “State of Black America” conference held in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is particularly significant when considering Senator Hillary Clinton made her own appearance there. In this space, Clinton’s White racial identity became an external thing, a deployable resource that provided certain tangible and intangible benefits not afforded her opponent, who was absent. Her Whiteness went from passive attribute to elevated resource to be used and enjoyed in a space where it was deemed valuable. As Cheryl Harris (1993) has so eloquently argued Whiteness as property took the form of currency, a reputational asset that when applied to this case involving Clinton became the basis for an exchange from which she intended to reap votes. Clinton did so based on a set of assumptions regarding (p.106) “authentic” representation used at the time to critique her opponent and her own racialized privilege opposite Obama’s candidacy in the Democratic primaries (Harris 1993; Guinier 1994).

Given that Obama’s background lacked many of the cultural markers with which African Americans are most familiar, it prompted a curiosity of “fit” that in turn affected the confidence of many potential Black voters and had them ponder whether a victory for a Black candidate elected by a White majority with the support of Black voters would merely represent a psychological, but not necessarily a substantive, triumph (Persons 1993; Guinier 1994; Smith 2006; Walters 2007; Ford 2009; Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2009). Such doubt became most evident when public opinion polls repeatedly showed that Hillary Clinton possessed a sizable lead over Barack Obama among African American voters throughout the year prior to the Iowa caucuses that took place on January 3, 2008 (Jamieson 2009; Liu 2010; Tesler and Sears 2010). Senator Obama could demonstrate his fitness for the office of president only by transcending race and not speaking directly to either the racial policy concerns of African Americans or the use of racial cues by his opponent—Hillary Clinton—so as to avoid tainting the electoral environment. But what accounts for this dynamic?

Some elections are more competitive than others and the 2008 Democratic nominating contest certainly qualified as one of the most arduous to date. As a consequence of increased competitiveness, the primaries elevated voter interest as well as led to greater fundraising and candidate expenditures (Jackman and Vavreck 2010; Liu 2010). Given the degree of uncertainty associated with such a competitive electoral contest, media messaging took on additional importance particularly in terms of content and frequency of coverage. As in most highly competitive biracial electoral contests, the media accentuated the race of Obama, and his White opponent (Clinton) sought a political edge by injecting race in her campaign messages (Reeves 1997; Terkildsen and Damore 1999; Mendelberg 2001). It is therefore important to assess the way in which racial messages that cue stereotypes were used by his opponent and news media organizations to make meaning of Obama’s candidacy in 2008, with at least two illustrative examples. By emphasizing race, visually or in print, they—his opponent and media organizations—cued stereotyping in subtle and overt ways via campaign rhetoric and dramatic events.

Race-relevant events like the South Carolina primary and the controversial sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright were exogenous shocks to the political environment and increased the salience of race, which served to underscore the inter-candidate racial distinctions between Obama and Clinton. Race is a particularly viable voting cue for prejudiced voters and (p.107) those prone to stereotypical judgments, especially when elements of subtle racism are injected into the campaign (McCormick and Jones 1993; Reeves 1997; Mendelberg 2001; Tesler and Sears 2010; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012). Obama lacked control over the extent to which either the media or Clinton would generate campaign messages that cued racial prejudice or stereotyping. Obama’s campaign could only react to opponent or media rhetoric after it unfolded and could do little to stop such information from being communicated and fueling public discourse about polarizing racial issues (Tesler and Sears 2010; McKenzie 2011; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012).

Although, Obama could more easily mobilize White voters than his predecessors based on his public persona as a candidate who transcended race, it would be more difficult to compete equally, or as successfully as his White liberal opponent against the backdrop of a racially charged electoral environment. Clinton shocked the campaign in September 2008 when she compared herself to President Lyndon Johnson and Obama to Dr. Martin Luther King, saying, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . but it took a president to get it done” (Tesler and Sears 2010: 30). Clinton’s words affirmed that by virtue of institutional and hierarchal arrangement the influence of Dr. King was most assuredly not equal to that of President Johnson, who possessed the ability to control, manage, postpone, and if necessary thwart civil rights legislation by executive order. Under legalized segregation, it was the natural fact of White privilege that President Johnson dictated the pace and course of any moderating change to remedy past injustices. Clinton failed to rhetorically recognize this and instead reified the privilege of such power by rendering Dr. King’s role as subordinate and less impactful. By March 2008, the electoral environment was shocked again by racially charged remarks made by Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who claimed the United States was controlled by “rich White people,” declared that God should “damn America for killing innocent people,” and suggested that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were “chickens coming home to roost” for U.S. military actions abroad (Tesler and Sears 2010; McKenzie 2011; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012).

As the literature has suggested, it can be difficult to distinguish the impact of news messages about these events from the impact of these events alone on the electoral fortunes of both candidates, respectively (Graber 1993). While the degree and intensity of news coverage would vary throughout the course of the 2008 campaign, scholars would later argue that the Wright controversy served to undermine Obama’s race-neutral persona (Tesler and Sears 2010; McKenzie 2011; Kinder and (p.108) Dale-Riddle 2012). By adopting popular news reporting practices from conflict-seeking to locating iconic visuals and crafting simplified versions of events, the mainstream press hindered the American public’s ability to evaluate Obama’s candidacy fairly and altered their perceptions of his race-neutral image for the purpose of heightening the drama of a campaign for mass audience appeal (Entman and Rojecki 2000; Tesler and Sears 2010; McKenzie 2011; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012). The conflict-seeking norm is one that is well-documented as a criterion for newsworthiness and this pattern of news coverage involves identifying the African American candidate with a militant and racially polarizing figure who is likely to frighten White voters (McCormick and Jones 1993; Reeves 1997; Entman and Rojecki 2000; Mendelberg 2001). While the use of such a news reporting practice is common, it can have negative consequences for Black office-seekers.

Several studies have tested the harmful effects of unflattering campaign events, using the Farrakhan factor and the Wright controversy to illustrate how racial messages influenced candidate evaluations of Jackson and Obama, respectively (Reeves 1997; Entman and Rojecki 2000; Mendelberg 2001; Valentino, Hutchings, and White 2002; Philpot 2007; Tesler and Sears 2010; McKenzie 2011; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012). By calling repeated attention to his association with Wright and, at the same time, elevating the importance of Obama’s candidacy as a historic first on account of his race, mainstream media outlets created a powerful dynamic whereby White voters could allege hypocrisy and question whether Obama’s spiritual life reflected a less inclusive set of beliefs. That is to say, the Wright controversy would activate latent fears and suspicions regarding Obama’s post-racial politics (Tesler and Sears 2010; McKenzie 2011). Despite the fact that Obama’s campaign sought to bridge divides between various racial and ethnic groups, Wright’s “bombastic” and “angry” sermons resulted in less favorable candidate evaluations for Obama (McKenzie 2011: 949). Obama’s subsequent decision to publically sever all ties with Wright and denounce his remarks became a matter of political necessity for electoral success. Obama would also employ the help of “White surrogates” who acted as character references and maintained that he was both post-racial and post-partisan—for example, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, came forth with public endorsements shortly after the South Carolina primary (Fraser 2009; Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2009; Tesler and Sears 2010). Similarly, others like talk show host Oprah Winfrey defended Obama against charges that he was beholden to a religious extremist like Reverend Wright (Simien 2009).

(p.109) Doing Race, Performing Blackness

A remarkable feature of Obama’s historic candidacy, which started out carefully distanced from civil rights veterans like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, was the fact that it eventually made race relevant and exerted a priming influence via emotion-eliciting gestures and speeches when racially vitriolic campaign attacks could not be avoided or general anti-Black affect could not be ignored by the American electorate. In response to sharp criticism from his rival Hillary Clinton, Obama referenced a music video by using rapper Jay-Z’s hand signal to “brush the dirt” off his shoulders at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 17, 2008. Here he suggested Clinton’s “textbook Washington” tactics relied on personal attacks and invoked trivial issues (Hancock 2011: 6). Not only was Obama conscious of his Blackness in this moment, but he was also conscious of the way in which Blackness had been socially constructed and transformed into products of human activity—a performative gesture like the “brush-off” provided an allusion of an abiding racialized self and successfully captured media attention.

Such a performative accomplishment can mark the difference between being oneself and performing oneself, assuming that identity is tenuously situated in time and instituted through a stylized repetitious act. The act itself conformed to an expected racial identity shaped by hip-hop culture, embodying Black cool as self-discipline and composure under pressure (Asim 2009). It afforded Obama the opportunity to use a signifying gesture to gain electoral support by dramatizing his ability to cope with his opponent’s attacks. The gesture qualified as a powerful reference point in the campaign for Black voters most familiar with the “cool pose” used by Black men. The cool pose is a unique masculine style of coping through behavior (hooks 2004). It is at once charismatic, suave, debonair, and entertaining but also a matter of expressive performance and resistant survival strategy (Majors and Billson 1992; hooks 2004).

Whereas rapper Jay-Z exaggerates his Blackness and masculinity to captivate audiences, Obama downplays his and converts stress-related marginality into a mask of nonchalance (or indifference) for spectators. After all, cool literally means “not excited, calm, and controlled” by definition. Role-playing in this way creates a public persona that involves a spontaneous form of representation via speech, intonation, gesture, and facial expressions aimed at satisfying audience expectations (Majors and Billson 1992; Whitby 1997; hooks 2004). We might therefore consider said behavior representational because Obama had to know he was acting in a way that members of the Black community would applaud and (p.110) celebrate. Since he was descriptively like them, his actions would prove ego-enhancing for themselves as well (Fenno 2003). To the extent that such an attachment is vitally important to campaigns and his performance relatable to audiences, only a Black male office-seeker could have made such a descriptive-symbolic connection as meaningful through word and deed by embodying the group in question. Clinton as his White female opponent could not have made the same requisite connection via signifying gesture with African American voters. Clinton would not be “believable” because she lacked the sociological attributes of the African American electorate (Whitby 1997: 6).

Intersectionally Marginalized

Black male identity in particular is located within a collective, and yet it is influenced by individual life experiences (Howard 2014). Of course, the collective identity shared by Jackson and Obama in particular can produce a conundrum for researchers who seek to understand Black male candidates as a whole, as the diversity of their individual lived experiences as Black men in the United States will influence their campaign messages in similar, yet distinct ways. The ways in which they both experienced the intersection of race and gender exposed the processes and conditions by which certain aspects of their identities would be primed during the presidential selection process. While social identities like race and gender were prominent, equally captivating were the ways that Obama’s ethnic origin and educational background served to illustrate how Black male candidates can use their identities to mediate representation in electoral politics as narrated by their own individual life experiences. For obvious reasons, Obama’s campaign would differ in strategy from his predecessors because he would employ a race-neutral approach void of any protest rhetoric that might adversely affect his candidacy. It would also differ in strategy from his opponent—Hillary Clinton—because race remains a salient issue for many voters, both Black and White, as they continue to employ it as a voting heuristic to assess policy positions and potential performance in office (Reeves 1997; McDermott 1998; Tesler and Sears 2010; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012). With that said, the reader is reminded that symbolic empowerment is a bridge concept. It attends to the dynamic relationship between descriptive representation and symbolic representation, emphasizing the mutually reinforcing nature of these two constructs for electoral politics. For example, it is instructive to imagine that Obama could be both representative and symbolic at the same time during an (p.111) unprecedented opportunity to elect a historic first to this nation’s highest office. Clearly, the outcome of the 2008 American presidential election indicates that the majority of voters will vote for a Black Democratic presidential candidate; however, it is a certain type that will find it easier, and others more difficult, to gain White support, as evidenced by the pioneer cohort examined previously—Chisholm in 1972 and Jackson in 1984.

In The Audacity of Hope (2008), Barack Obama chronicles his life and reflects upon his distinct biracial heritage as prototypical of an increasingly diverse America while at the same time establishing an in-group attachment with African Americans based on the everyday realities of race and racism in the United States. In several important ways, Obama actively crafts a narrative of identity that infuses his family’s story with U.S. history—for example, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and slavery (Walters 2007; Ford 2009; Augoustinos and DeGaris 2012). He places special emphasis on the diversity of his background, having been born the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas (Walters 2007; Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2009; Augoustinos and DeGaris 2012). As the story unfolds, we learn that he was raised by a single mother with the help of a White grandfather who survived the Great Depression and served in World War II (Obama 2008). His grandmother’s story of having worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management is one that resonates with women who have been denied fair employment opportunities in the workplace (Augoustinos and DeGaris 2012). Obama’s reference to his wife, Michelle, as a Black American “who carries in her the blood of slaves and slave owners” also served a similar purpose to establish a sense of commonality or familiarity with hardship and suffering (Obama 2008). Along the way, he recounted his lived experiences in various geographic locations from Kansas and Kenya to the shores of Hawaii and the streets of Chicago (Ford 2009; Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2009). In this way, Obama likened himself to an increasingly prominent segment of the Black middle class and elite—immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean—who are undeniably Black in terms of phenotype and ancestry but who do not share the same experience as the descendants of American slaves (Walters 2007; Ford 2009). He deployed a range of social identity categories to depict himself as an exemplar of cultural diversity and social inclusion in the United States (Walters 2007; Asim 2009; Augoustinos and DeGaris 2012). By so doing, Obama was able to uniquely position himself as the candidate best suited to advance the collective interests of all Americans and not strictly African Americans.

We may never know and ascertain with any degree of certainty the extent to which Obama’s representational style and deracialized (p.112) campaign strategy contributed to his electoral success. But the extent to which Obama’s candidacy increased the propensity for Americans generally and African Americans specifically to become mobilized and actively participate in a range of political behaviors can be determined using large-N survey data from the 2008 ANES time series with its oversample of various racial and ethnic groups. To date, the study of Black political behavior has evolved from scholarly research published in the 1970s and 1980s that examined voter turnout more or less explicitly via comparative analyses of Black-White differences based on voter turnout models attentive to socioeconomic status (Olsen 1970; Guterbock and London 1983) and group consciousness (Miller et al. 1981; Shingles 1981; Dawson 1993) as well as political context (Bobo and Gilliam 1990; Tate 1993) and party mobilization (Wielhouwer 2000; Philpot, Shaw, and McGowen 2009).

Over the course of the last few decades, political scientists have relied heavily on data from successive large-scale opinion polls—the 1984, 1988, and 1996 National Black Election Studies (NBES) as well as the 1993 National Black Politics Studies (NBPS)—all sampling the adult African American population. Several scholars have reached consensus on the following points: African Americans outperformed Whites when differences in socioeconomic status were taken into account (Olsen 1970; Guterbock and London 1983; Verba et al. 2005; Leighley and Vedlitz 1999), membership in Black civic and religious organizations involving political discussions heightened participation (Calhoun-Brown 1996; Harris 1999; McKenzie 2004; McDaniel 2008), group consciousness or a sense of linked fate took precedence over class interests in determining the solidarity that typifies African Americans’ vote choice and presidential approval (Shingles 1981; Dawson 1993; Tate 1993; Simien 2013), and the context of elections whereby Black office-seekers increased political interest while contributing to a more trusting and efficacious orientation toward politics contributed to increased turnout (Bobo and Gilliam 1990; Tate 1991, 1993).

Consistent with earlier studies and this later work, we stress the importance of symbolic empowerment whereby a historic first—that being, in this case, a Black office-seeker—facilitates the process by which African American voters support the candidacy of a successful “other” with whom they identify on account of linked fate and the desire to support someone from their own group by voting and in other ways participating in the electoral process. Obvious limitations in the analytic reach of past studies have made it difficult to generalize findings beyond the particular case in question, whether that be local Black mayors in major metropolitan cities (p.113) or Black members of Congress from majority-minority districts and their influence on African American voter turnout (Bobo and Gilliam 1990; Emig, Hesse, and Fisher 1996; Gilliam 1996; Gilliam and Kaufman 1998; Gay 2001; Fenno 2003; Tate 2003; Griffin and Keane 2006; Marschall and Ruhil 2007; Spence, McClerking, and Brown 2009; Spence and McClerking 2010). Thus, the present study offers maximum analytic advantage by examining the impact of symbolic empowerment on a range of participatory behaviors that could be associated with Obama’s historic candidacy. Shifting the empirical focus in this way is ideal for deciphering the link between and the consequences of descriptive and symbolic representation for the represented—African American voters in particular.

The chapter builds upon Tate’s (1983) analysis of Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign by way of extension and explicit focus on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. More specifically, it breaks new ground with today’s “new Black voter” in mind. By so doing, we advance intersectionality-type research that identifies African American women as the “new Black voter” (Smooth 2006; Simien 2009). As such, we expect that African American women will outperform African American men across various types of political behavior—including wearing a campaign button, posting a lawn sign or bumper sticker, engaging in political talk for or against a candidate, donating money to the Democratic party, or attending a speech or rally—if they had voted for Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

While we are interested in Obama’s mobilizing effect on African American voters specifically, we are also interested in the differential impact of his candidacy on American voters generally. His candidacy affords us the opportunity to be attentive to Black-White differences via comparative analyses of political behavior for respective racial and gender groups using the 2008 ANES times series data. Early studies of American presidential elections have long framed political behavior in terms of a “racial divide” in voting patterns, and so it is not surprising that news commentators and political analysts would speculate about the “Bradley effect” during the 2008 American presidential election (Reeves 1997; Liu 2010; Tesler and Sears 2010). The “Bradley effect” is named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a Black candidate who, despite a clear lead in the polls going into the 1982 California Governor’s race, surprisingly lost the election by the closest proportional margin in the history of California’s gubernatorial races, 49.3% to 48.1% of the total votes cast (Staples 1982; Henry 1987 Reeves 1997; Hopkins 2009). Simply put, the “Bradley effect” refers to a gap between how Black candidates poll and how they perform in biracial contests (Hopkins 2009).

(p.114) Annoyed by his White opponent’s efforts to inject race into the campaign and unhappy with the news coverage afforded him by local media organizations that cued trait stereotypes, Bradley lamented: “People tend to think of me as the black mayor of Los Angeles, not as the mayor of Los Angeles who happens to be Black . . . I am not the black candidate for governor. I am the Democrat party’s candidate for governor” (Reeves 1997: 59). His remarks illustrate the conventional understanding of outcome effects related to the polling-performance gap of the “Bradley effect,” which is often attributed to racial prejudice and stereotyping on the part of White voters who are unwilling to give socially undesirable answers in interviews and express their lack of support for a Black candidate just prior to the election (Henry 1982; Reeves 1997; Hopkins 2009). As Bradley opined, the combination of the two—his White opponent and local news media organizations—can influence evaluative judgments and electoral choices among prospective voters (Henry 1982; Reeves 1997; Mendelberg 2001).

Newer scholarship suggests that the “Bradley effect” once strong in the early 1990s is no more, referencing polls taken in several Southern states with large Black populations that underestimated Senator Obama’s support in 2008 as evidence (Hopkins 2009). For this reason, we consider whether White voters who turned out in enthusiastic support for Obama in the Democratic nominating contest participated in other ways beyond voting, from wearing a campaign button, posting a lawn sign or bumper sticker, and engaging in political talk to donating money as well as attending a speech or rally. Such a focus on the differential impact of Obama’s candidacy on Black and White voters shows the importance of a deracialized campaign strategy and representational style that are mutually reinforcing, having predictably different effects on a diverse electorate whose needs are balanced by promoting a politics of commonality or rather, a biracial politics versus a politics of difference. In our minds, Obama walked a racial tightrope on the integrationist side while in pursuit of the U.S. presidency to appeal to the most voters and ensure electoral success. This strategy, in fact, reflected his representational style from a perspective of balancing various interests.

Data and Measures

The 2008 ANES time series is the most recent and appropriate source of data with which to examine Obama’s mobilizing effect on participatory behaviors, especially in light of its stratified random oversample of (p.115) various racial, ethnic, and gender groups. It contained a representative sample of Americans with 2,323 respondents in total, including 1,323 women, 583 African Americans (male = 238; female = 345), and 509 Latinos (male = 213; female = 296). Respondents were asked the same questions, allowing researchers to make statistically valid comparisons between and among various racial, ethnic, and gender groups. The 2008 ANES time series also offers a battery of questions that measure support for Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries as well as questions that measure varied forms of political behavior from proselyting to voting (in the primary and general election) and donating money to attending a political meeting, rally or speech as well as wearing a campaign button, putting a sticker on your car, or placing a sign in your window or in front of your house. Our measures of support for the candidacy of Obama are fairly straightforward—that is, we use binary variables that ask whether the respondent cast a Primary Vote for Obama. We interact these variables with the appropriate racial, ethnic, and gender group to test our hypotheses regarding Obama’s candidacy and its mobilizing effect on the American electorate. More specifically, we interact Primary Vote for Obama with African American women and men (in Tables 5.1-5.4) and with White women and men (in Tables 5.55.7) to test whether their behavior differed from other groups as well.

Table 5.1. Comparative Political Behavior of African Americans Voting for Obama in the 2008 Presidential Primary


Donated Money


Attended Rally

Political Talk

African American Women * Primary Vote for Obama


1. 232***







African American Men * Primary Vote for Obama






















































Religious Service Attendance


















Internal Efficacy









External Efficacy









Bush Disapproval









Habitual Voter























Pseudo R2





Log likelihood





Source: 2008 ANES Time Series Study. Democrats of all other racial, ethnic, and gender groups are the baseline comparison in these models.

(*) p < .10;

(**) p < .05;

(***) p < .01.

Table 5.2. Predicted Probabilities for the Political Behavior of African Americans Voting for Obama in the 2008 Presidential Primary

Predicted Probabilities

African American Women: Min ➔ Max

African American Men: Min ➔ Max

Donated Money






Attended Rally



Political Talk



(*) p < .10;

(**) p < .05;

(***) p < .01.

Table 5.3. Racial Identification among African Americans and Their Political Behavior in the 2008 Presidential Election


Donated Money


Attended Rally

Political Talk

Primary Vote for Obama









Racial identification






















































Religious Service Attendance


















Internal Efficacy









External Efficacy









Bush Disapproval








Habitual Voter























Pseudo R2





Log likelihood





Source: 2008 ANES Time Series Study. These models are run using only African Americans.

(*) p < .10;

(**) p < .05;

(***) p < .01.

1 Omitted, since the variable predicted failure perfectly.

Table 5.4. Predicted Probabilities for Racial Identification among African Americans and Their Political Behavior in the 2008 Presidential Election

Predicted Probabilities

Racial Identification

Donated Money




Attended Rally


Political Talk


*p < .10;

(**) p < .05;

***p < .01.

All models feature the following control variables as validated measures that typically set the standard: Age, Income, Education Ideology, Internal and External Political Efficacy, and region (for which we use a binary control for South). Given that our research questions also raise concerns over whether his candidacy “stimulated” political activity among members of the population who did not generally participate in politics, it was important to include a basic Habitual Voter measure, which is a simple binary variable for whether the individual voted in the previous presidential election or not (and controls for whether or not they were eligible to vote in that election). In addition, we consider other factors previously measured for Clinton’s chapter—for example, anti-Bush sentiment and racial/ethnic group identification as well as frequency of religious service attendance.

Results: Evidence from the 2008 ANES Time Series Study

Using binary logit, our analysis of the 2008 ANES time series demonstrates that African American women emerged as the strongest supporters of Obama’s candidacy when compared to other racial and ethnic (p.116) groups. See Table 5.1 for results. In fact, African American women were significantly more likely than African American men and other demographic groups to participate in all types of political behavior—including wearing a campaign button, posting a lawn sign or bumper sticker, engaging in political talk for or against a candidate, donating money to the Democratic party, or attending a campaign rally—if they had cast a vote for Obama in the 2008 Democratic nominating contest. Bush disapproval was also a consistently powerful predictor. Democrats of all other racial, ethnic, and gender groups were the baseline in these respective models of participation. To provide a more substantive interpretation of these findings, predicted probabilities were calculated as they tell us the precise likelihood of participating in these activities. As Table 5.2 demonstrates, African American women who voted for Obama in the primary were 11% more likely to donate money to the Democratic party, 15% more likely to engage in political talk for or against a candidate, 10% more likely to attend a speech or rally, and 25% more likely wear a campaign button or post a lawn sign or bumper sticker. As in Jackson’s chapter, this pattern of behavior on the part of African American women does not conform to gendered expectations and resource-based models.

Such findings are important because they provide evidence in support of the argument that it is essential to look at differences between and within groups if we are to fully understand political behavior and the electoral outcome of the 2008 American presidential election. These results, however, mask troubling contextual factors affecting the composition of the African American voting-eligible population today. Given the legal barriers to voting that African Americans have historically had to confront and still face on account of felony disenfranchisement laws, the lower rate at which African American men participate when compared to African American women should be stated in conditional versus absolute terms.

Perhaps the most unique contextual factors to consider include the ever-alarming rate at which African American men have been incarcerated in the prison industrial complex and the severity of felony disenfranchisement laws across the country, which might actually explain their behavior vis-à-vis African American women. It is also quite possible that the emergence of a new Black voter who is defined by her gender occurred concurrently with this trend in national crime policy aimed at declaring a “war” on drugs during and after Jackson’s candidacy (Smooth 2006a; Jordan-Zachery 2009; Alexander 2010; Lerman and Weaver 2014). This explanation helps resolve any conflicting interpretation or skepticism regarding the theoretical link between symbolic empowerment and participatory behaviors exhibited by African American men. The main finding is (p.117) (p.118) that the story of the “racial divide” in American presidential elections, the primary frame for discussing Black-White differences in voting patterns, often conceals the fact that African American women’s support for Democratic presidential nominees exceeds that of African American men, as they have increasingly been denied access to the franchise over the last several presidential elections on account of felony disenfranchisement laws (Smooth 2006a; Alexander 2010; Lerman and Weaver 2014).

As shown in Table 5.3, a primary vote for Obama is the stronger influence, but racial group identification is still highly predictive of various types of political behavior for African Americans from donating money and attending a campaign rally to engaging in political talk. These results are based on models run separately for each participatory act, using only the African American sample from the ANES time series data.1 The significance of racial group identification in predicting African American political behavior across a number of activities is indicative of a connection between Obama’s candidacy and an investment in the promise that his candidacy offered to those previously denied representation at the presidential level. As shown by predicted probabilities in Table 5.4, racial identification made African Americans 22% more likely to participate in political talk, 7% more likely to donate money, and 6% more likely to attend a rally. Given that African American women participated in these activities at an even higher rate than African American men, it would seemingly suggest that African American women identified just as strongly with their racial identity as their male counterparts. Combined, a primary vote for Obama and racial group identification appear to be the driving force behind active participation. The measure for Habitual Voter is a consistently insignificant predictor of their participation. (p.119)

(p.120) Obama’s mobilizing effect was not limited to African Americans but had a positive and statistically significant impact on donating money, attending a speech or rally, wearing a campaign button, and posting a lawn sign or bumper sticker among Whites who voted for him in the Democratic nominating contest. See Table 5.5 for results, using only the White sample from the ANES time series data. This finding takes on special importance in 2008, a year which witnessed the most viable Black presidential candidate from a major party in U.S. history run for executive office (Hopkins 2009). As Table 5.6 demonstrates, a primary vote for Obama increased the likelihood that White voters would participate in ways that also signaled gender differences—for example, White women were 15% more likely to attend a speech or rally, and 14% more likely to wear a campaign button or post a lawn sign or bumper sticker than White men. Especially striking are the areas in which White women were found to be equally or more likely than White men to participate because this pattern of behavior does not conform to gendered expectations or resource-based models. Take, for example, the act of donating money. The extant literature suggests that women are less likely to donate money because they possess less income than men, which would then explain a disparity in political behavior between men and women on account of a masculine advantage (Schlozman, Burns, and Verba 1994). These results, however, suggest that Obama’s candidacy had an empowering effect that trumped any resource deficit that might explain gender differences in participation. In fact, Obama had such a broad mobilizing effect that White women sometimes outperformed their male counterparts. It is important to note, however, that while White voters did turn out for Obama in the Democratic primaries, they did so proportionally less than African American voters in the ANES sample.

Table 5.5. Habitual Voter Measure among Whites and Their Political Behavior in the 2008 Presidential Election


Donated Money


Attended Rally

Political Talk

Primary Vote for Obama









Habitual Voter






















































Religious Service Attendance


















Internal Efficacy









External Efficacy









Bush Disapproval























Pseudo R2





Log likelihood





Source: 2008 ANES Time Series Study. These models are run using only Whites sampled.

(*) p < .10;

(**) p < .05;

(***) p < .01.

Table 5.6. Predicted Probabilities for the Political Behavior of Whites Voting for Obama in the 2008 Presidential Primary

Predicted Probabilities

White Women: Min ➔ Max

White Men: Min ➔ Max

Donated Money






Attended Rally



Political Talk



*p < .10;

(**) p < .05;

(***) p < .01.

(p.121) Even though Obama was able to expand his electoral base beyond the adult African American population and the ANES time series provided a sufficient oversample of African Americans for cross-racial group comparisons (N = 583), the relatively small sample size for White voters (N = 144/576) who actually supported his candidacy in the Democratic primaries compared to African American voters (N = 185/261) who (p.122) similarly supported his candidacy in the Democratic primaries makes such an analysis for the purpose of generalizing results difficult. Whereas the overwhelming majority of African American voters (71%) supported his candidacy in the primaries, White voters (25%) did so to a lesser extent based on data from the ANES time series. Even though they favored the same candidate, Black and White voters did so by different margins, resulting in a racial divide with a greater proportion of African American voters who preferred Obama’s candidacy. This finding is consistent with a trend previously recorded in Jackson’s chapter. It is also worth noting that the Habitual Voter measure was both positive and significant for White voters. See Table 5.5 for results. Contrastingly, this variable does not reach statistical significance for African Americans in their corresponding model. See Table 5.3 for comparative purposes.

We used predicted probabilities to offer a clearer glimpse of how significant the Habitual Voter variable actually was for White voters, and how insignificant it was for African American voters, in predicting various types of political behavior. In Table 5.7, it is clear that for Whites having cast a vote in the 2004 presidential election made it significantly more likely that they would engage in three types of behavior: donating money, wearing a campaign button/posting a sign or bumper sticker, and engaging in proselytizing for or against a candidate in 2008. In fact, White voters who had voted in 2004 were 20% more likely to proselytize in 2008. For African Americans, however, Table 5.7 indicates that voting in the 2004 election had no significant impact on this behavior—or any of the other political behaviors we modeled. As indicated previously, the insignificance of the Habitual Voter measure for African Americans in Table 5.7 contrasts with the significance of our measure for racial group identification.

Table 5.7. Predicted Probabilities for Habitual Voter Measure among Whites and African Americans and Their Political Behavior in the 2008 Presidential Election

Predicted Probabilities

2004 Vote for African Americans: Min ➔ Max

2004 Vote for Whites: Min ➔ Max

Donated Money






Attended Rally



Political Talk



*p < .10;

(**) p < .05;

(***) p < .01.

Both the insignificance of this Habitual Voter measure and the significance of a vote for Obama in the Democratic primaries suggest that the (p.123) level of activity exhibited by African Americans in 2008 had nothing to do with whether they had voted in 2004. Newcomer or not, African Americans got a boost from supporting Obama in the 2008 primaries. It is especially important to note that all of the “new voters” in the 2008 ANES time series who voted for Obama in the Democratic nominating contest were African American. The “stimulus” that support for Obama’s candidacy in the Democratic nominating contest afforded African Americans can then be interpreted as a positive “carryover effect” unique to them when considering the combined insignificance of the Habitual Voter measure and the significance of racial group identification. White voters were arguably advantaged on account of their status as habitual voters, having already overcome bureaucratic barriers (most notably registration) and other information costs associated with participation. The extant literature suggests that these advantages contributed to their reliability in the 2008 general election (Plutzer 2002). Thus, we might conclude that their voting history is a powerful predictor of future behavior.

African Americans in particular were mobilized into nomination campaigns as primary voters and among them were all of the newly registered voters based on data from the 2008 ANES time series (Philpot, Shaw, and McGovern 2009). Voting in the nomination campaign—specifically, voting for the winning candidate—encouraged other forms of participation on the part of this African American electorate comprised of the newly registered and those previously registered who were similarly energized by Obama’s historic candidacy. They did not simply register and vote in unprecedented numbers, but they participated in other ways beyond voting, from donating money and engaging in political talk to attending a campaign rally.

(p.124) This chapter makes several important contributions to the study of American presidential elections in general and political behavior in particular. First, it offers a more complex range and complete model of participatory behaviors that is attentive to African American voters who participated in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries and general election. This model considers the impact of symbolic empowerment, which captures the mobilizing effect of historic “firsts” on the American electorate during presidential elections—in this case, Barack Obama in 2008. Clearly, Obama’s candidacy effectively mobilized African American voters in general and African American female voters in particular, as well as White voters who had voted in the previous election. Second, the present study shows that racial group identification aided Obama’s victory among African American men and women—henceforth, it puts to rest the notion that African American women were torn or conflicted over their decision to support Obama over Clinton in the 2008 Democratic nominating contest (see, for example, Simien 2009; Logan 2011; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012, for consistent findings). Third, it demonstrates the importance of studying within and between groups over time and in varying electoral situations—for example, Obama’s candidacy in 2008 like that of Jackson’s in 1984 had an empowering effect on women that trumped any resource deficit and allowed them to outperform their male counterparts.

The intent of using the 2008 presidential election as our case study was to wed normative political theory with empirical political science. Here we develop and test a theory of the effect of symbolic empowerment—a hybrid term that conceives of descriptive and symbolic representation as inseparable—on a range of political behaviors using large-N survey data to assess Obama’s mobilizing effect on the American electorate with particular attention paid to Black-White as well as gender group differences. Along the way, we adopted an intersectional approach to surmise the simultaneous effects of race (Blackness) and gender (maleness) on electoral politics using Obama’s candidacy as an illustrative example for which to speculate about the pros and cons of his deracialized campaign strategy. If this research shows anything of theoretical importance, it is that the intersection of race (Blackness) and gender (maleness) in the presidential selection process can influence representational strategies used by candidates who embody these identity categories so as to maximize their full potential for electoral success. In the end, the significance of descriptive-symbolic connections cannot be emphasized enough, especially when considering the extent to which Obama’s candidacy increased the likelihood that citizens who were previously inactive would cast a ballot for the first (p.125) time and participate in other ways. Given the legal and economic barriers to voting that African Americans have historically had to face from poll taxes and literacy tests to modern-day examples of voter suppression and felony disenfranchisement, those who supported Obama’s candidacy could take credit for a socially valued outcome—that is, having elected a historic first as president of the United States in the post–civil rights era (Griffin and Keane 2006).


(1.) It is important to note, however, that this analysis is run separately to include racial group identification because Tables 5.1 and 5.2 offer a comparison between African American voters and Democratic voters of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. If racial identification were added, it would limit the model to only African American voters, and then its explanatory value (comparing African Americans to other Democratic voters) would have been lost.