Political scientists study the views of African American voters

Since last December, political scientists at UCLA and Stanford have been surveying the attitudes of 20,000 voters across the country and across the ethnic and political spectrum. Yesterday, KPCC's Brian Watt examined their methods for determining the ways race factors into their choice for president. Today, he says, their project has also focused on African-American voters as the historic Election Day approaches.

Brian Watt: Researchers with the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project determined that, for about 11 percent of their sample who plan to vote against Barack Obama, his race was a factor. But almost nobody would admit it when someone directly asked.

In a PowerPoint presentation at UCLA, Professor Simon Jackman of Stanford said the survey yielded interesting data about African-Americans who plan to vote for Obama.

Simon Jackman: Our estimate is that three quarters of African-American respondents found race relevant. When you ask African-American respondents, though, just flat out, "hey, you're voting for Obama: how relevant to you is it that he's African-American?" Well, only 25 percent.

Watt: Frank Gilliam was listening to Jackman's presentation. He's the dean of UCLA's School of Public Affairs. He's African-American, too – and he's also studying the views of black voters. Gilliam said he's tapped into a nervous and cautious optimism about a potential Obama victory.

Frank Gilliam: The voting booth is a private place, and who knows what people will do when they get in there. But I think the question – the interesting question is – if he does win, what does that mean?

Watt: What does it mean for race relations in this country, Gilliam asked – and what does it mean for African-Americans?

Gilliam: Some are arguing that we should guard against a certain kind of complacency, because whites will think that the race problem has been solved. That Obama, who has not taken on race, by their account, in this sort of hardcore social justice way will not do that, and that race won't sort of really stay on the agenda.

Watt: But as much as African-Americans are willing to think about the effects of an Obama victory, Gilliam said many still harbor a nagging question.

Gilliam: After all of this, after this lead, and after the relatively poor showing by McCain, if Obama doesn't win somehow, then what will it mean? And it will say something about, truly say something about how important race is in America.

Watt: So the dean of UCLA's School of Public Affairs calls this interesting political moment a perfect time for a political scientist to study the way voters think.