Charting Recent Racial Attitude Change among Democrats

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Even before racial attitudes became particularly important in shaping vote choice in the 2016 election (Sides 2017; Tesler 2016a, 2016b), opinion cleavages between the two parties were forming on issues of race. Data from Pew Research, for example, shows an increase from 28 to 64 percent of Democrats saying “racial discrimination is the main reason why black people can’t get ahead these days” from 2010 to 2017. The shift among Republicans proved much more muted over this seven-year span, with an increase of nine to 14 percent. Not only has this pattern introduced another key area of division between mass public partisans, but it also shows a strong trend toward racial liberalism among Democrats perhaps ushered in by ongoing racial justice causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Other cross-sectional data sources, such as the American National Election Study, shows a similar pattern–an especially striking recent shift among Democrats on issues of race:

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An important question emerges from trends like these. Because of the cross-sectional nature of these data sources, it is unknown if Democrats are changing their minds on racial issue, or if people are keeping the same opinion but changing their partisanship to accord with their preexisting opinion. In the latter case, which would indicate a party sorting dynamic, we would not observe the Pew or ANES time series trends as a result of individuals changing their opinion. Rather, we would explain it as racially conservative 2010 Democrats gradually leaving the party (and thus their racially conservative opinion on this issue no longer gets classified among Democrats) while racially liberal individuals who did not identify as Democrats in 2010 gradually entering the party (and thus making the overall party opinion more liberal on this racial issue).

To understand what dynamic has occurred to a greater degree to result in a Pew-style time series trend (i.e. Democrats growing more racially liberal), I turned to the Voter Study Group panel data. This dataset has key features–namely, it tracks the same 8,000 individuals over a five-year time span, recording attitudinal measures on them in 2011, 2012, and 2016. Crucially, these waves include measures of partisanship and a racial resentment four-question battery. (While often used to capture racial attitudes in political science research, it’s worth noting it has come under criticism for not capturing anti-black racial sentiment so much as general conservatism and individualism. However,  the battery come closest to the type used in the Pew data, and in that sense, using these questions fulfills the goal of my analysis here.)

Here are the four battery items (survey-takers responds with the degree to which they agree with the statements):

  1. Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
  2. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
  3. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
  4. It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

Before exploiting the panel structure, I test whether trends in the VSG data on these questions mirror the Pew trend (which is based on a similar but not identical question). Thus, I start with a a cross-sectional format: 2011 racial attitude opinion broken down by 2011 partisanship, and 2016 racial attitude opinion broken down by 2016 partisanship. The VSG data, shown in the below graph, tells a similar story in a growth towards more racially liberal views. For each battery item, I compute the net agreement level (percentage agreeing with the statement minus percentage disagreeing with it), among Democrats only (in blue) and all Americans (in orange).

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For each question, people move more liberal on race, but Democrats due so at a faster pace (as expressed by the steeper lines). For example, in 2011, a net +15 Democrats agreed that generations of slavery and discrimination have made it difficult for blacks (i.e. 15 percent more Democrats agreed than disagreed). In 2016, that became a net +38. Among all Americans, the growth was -17 to -12 from 2011 to 2016. While five points in the liberal direction, that still lagged behind the 23 point shift leftward among Democrats on this issue of race. Similarly, on the question of whether blacks have gotten less than they deserve, Americans as a whole got 23 points more liberal while only Democrats got 43 points more liberal from 2011 to 2016. Democrats grew 24 points more liberal on whether blacks should work their way up without special favors (i.e. disagreeing with that statement to a greater extent), while all Americans grew just 10 points more liberal. Finally, on whether blacks could be just as well off as whites if they tried harder, Democrats became 13 points more liberal while all Americans became just one point more liberal.

All told, there have been considerable shifts leftward on racial questions, with Democrats growing liberal in these areas at a faster pace than the general population. Given this, I now move on to the main question: how much individual level change over time is occurring? In order to capture this, I first want to hold partisanship fixed and examine racial attitudes based on the expressed attitudes five years earlier. In that vein of thought, for individuals who identified as Democrats in both 2011 and 2016 (“consistent Democrats”), I plot the percentage agreeing with each racial resentment battery item in 2016 based on their response to the same battery item in 2011.

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The results in the graph show greater shifts in the liberal direction on these racial questions in a way that provides evidence for the individual level change story. I’ll walk through the first item–which asks respondents if they agree that blacks have gotten less than they deserve over the past few years–as an example. Here, agreement constitutes the more liberal response, signalling compassion toward blacks and awareness of injustices directed toward them. Among Democrats who agreed with the statement in 2011 (took the liberal position), 86 percent agreed in 2016 (took the liberal position again five years later). However, among those who originally expressed a conservative position–saying in 2011 that they disagreed that blacks have gotten less than they deserved–there was greater decay: only 52 percent of original conservative position-takers held the same conservative position in 2016, while 37 percent flipped to a liberal position (saying they agreed with the statement). With just eight percent of original racial liberals on this issue switching to the conservative side, it’s clear that the individual level change is disproportionately in the liberal direction.

Very similar patterns materialize for the three other battery items. On whether blacks should work their way up without special favors, 88 percent of Democrats taking a liberal position stay liberal five years later while fewer Democrats taking a conservative position at 70 percent do so. Meanwhile, 23 percent of original racial conservatives on this issue become racially liberal on this issue–greater than the eight percent of 2011 racially liberals who become racially conservative on this issue in 2016. These disproportionate “defection rates”–conservative position-takers switching to liberal position-taking and vice versa–appear for the final two items as well. On the issue of whether slavery and discrimination have made it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class, more original conservatives switch to a liberal position (33 percent) than original liberals switching to a conservative stance (nine percent). And on the issue of whether blacks could be just as well of as whites if they tried harder, 25 percent of original racial conservatives became liberal while only eight percent of original racial liberals became conservative–again, confirming the disproportionately greater trend in the liberal direction on racial issues among Democrats from 2011 to 2016. Thus, although most Democrats retain the same racial attitude, the fact that these defection rates are dissimilar (and don’t just cancel out, for example) suggests individual level “changing of minds” is contributing to patterns of aggregate racial attitude change among Democrats.

This of course doesn’t rule out other explanations for the Pew time series trend, as I discuss above. Perhaps partisans have been sorting around anti-black resentment levels in the last five years, with racial conservatives keeping their opinion but shifting to the Republican Party and racial liberals maintaining the same stance but entering the Democratic Party. While a plausible theory given the general importance of racial attitudes as well as past similar phenomena such as white southern partisan realignment, this sorting hypothesis does not receive much support from the VSG panel data. To test this idea, I now want to hold racial attitudes constant while checking partisanship in 2016 based on one’s expressed partisanship in 2011. I thus ask how does partisanship among consistent racial conservatives (individuals taking conservative positions on an item in both 2011 and 2016) and consistent racial liberals (individuals taking liberal positions on an item in both 2011 and 2016) look like in 2016 vs. 2011. Are racial conservatives in the Democratic Party leaving the party at disproportionate rates? Similarly, are racial liberals in the Republican Party leaving the party at disproportionate rates? The two below graphs–the first holding racial conservatism constant and the second holding racial liberalism constant–address these questions.

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From a qualitative standpoint, there does appear to be less evidence of party sorting around the racial resentment battery items than there is individual opinion change expressed in the earlier graph. However, sorting does occur to some extent, as in every case there is some (just not large) partisanship change consistent with this hypothesis. I’ll use the battery item about whether blacks should overcome prejudice and work their way up without special favors as an example. Among consistent racial conservatives, more 2011 Republicans retained the same partisan identity in 2016 (91 percent) than 2011 Democrats did in 2016 (79 percent). On the other hand, among consistent racial liberals on this issue (saying they disagreed with the statement), 97 percent of Democrats retained the same partisanship while fewer Republicans at 80 percent did so. These slightly disproportionate “defection rates” make sense in light of the sorting hypothesis–racial conservatives have increasingly left the Democratic Party and racial liberals have increasingly left the Republican Party.

Other battery items reveal similar magnitude levels. But while partisanship change observed here confirms some presence of sorting around racial resentment levels, the magnitude of change appears below that of opinion shift among original Democrats explained earlier, for example. It’s worth noting that comes from more of a qualitative view, however–I’m unaware of quantitative approaches that can directly pinpoint how much of overall opinion change is due to individual level change versus sorting. In sum, in explaining the recent shift leftward on issues of race among Democrats, there’s evidence of both individual level changing of minds and partisan sorting around issues of race within the last decade, but likely more so in favor of the former.


For more on who’s driving the Democratic shift toward racial liberalism, see my piece with Sean McElwee as well as supplementary materials here.

Charting Recent Racial Attitude Change among Democrats

9 thoughts on “Charting Recent Racial Attitude Change among Democrats

  1. […] As I’ve documented before, sizable racial attitude change has occurred among Democrats in the liberal direction over the last 5-10 years. An unsettled aspect of this development, though, is how much the 2016 election (elites, campaign messages, etc.) drove the racial liberalization as opposed to preceding forces (e.g., activism around racial issues). A quick review of some racial attitude survey data here can produce a rough answer to this question. […]

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