Effects of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign on White racial prejudice

Seth K Goldman, University of Pennsylvania


Research to date on the Obama campaign has focused almost exclusively on how racial attitudes influenced vote choice, a very important topic. But this study is the first to look at racial attitudes as the dependent variable and to propose a testable theory for how exposure to the campaign influenced racial attitudes. Past evidence of media effects on prejudice comes from either cross-sectional surveys, which provide weak causal inferences, or experiments, which may not be generalizable to more naturalistic settings. By contrast, I use three waves of panel data collected as part of a nationally representative survey to gauge the impact of change in exposure to Obama on change in White racial prejudice. The analyses use each respondent as his or her own control, thus eliminating all potentially spurious causes of association due to individual differences. According to my theory of mediated intergroup contact, the vast amount of coverage of Obama and his family changed the balance of positive and negative Black exemplars portrayed in mass media from mostly negative to mostly positive, thus causing reductions in White racial prejudice. Indeed, racial prejudice declined significantly during the campaign, and the overall decline in prejudice resulted from a positive shift in attitudes toward Blacks, not from a negative shift in attitudes toward Whites. As direct evidence of influence from the Obama exemplar, overtime increases in political television exposure led to declines in racial prejudice, especially when accompanied by overtime increases in coverage of Obama. Moreover, the largest effects occurred among McCain voters, Republicans and conservatives. By contrast, I found no evidence supporting alternative explanations stemming from exposure to other types of coverage. My thesis has broad implications for students of media, politics and prejudice. It provides the strongest evidence to date that exposure to outgroup portrayals in mass media can reduce prejudice in everyday life; furthers understanding of how media exposure influences outgroup attitudes, via my theory of mediated intergroup contact; and underlines the malleability of prejudice due to short-term changes in the flow of positive and negative outgroup exemplars portrayed in mass media.

Subject Area

American studies|Marketing|Communication|Political science|Ethnic studies|Mass communications

Recommended Citation

Goldman, Seth K, "Effects of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign on White racial prejudice" (2010). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3447165.