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Posted on Mon, Oct 22, 2012 : 11:31 a.m.

Election 2012: Race penalty or religion penalty?

By Wayne Baker

Mitt Romney in TV debates.jpg
Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing election penalties.

Election Day is two weeks from tomorrow. Tonight is the final debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Soon we will know if history is made by electing the first Mormon president or by re-electing the first African American president.

It looks like it's going to be a much closer race than it was in 2008 when Obama defeated McCain. Actually, the 2008 presidential election should have been a landslide for Obama, but it wasn't. Obama got 52.9 percent of the popular vote; McCain got 45.7 percent.

Obama: the race penalty in 2008

President Obama in TV debates.jpg

The spread should have been wider in 2008, according to political scientists who have carefully analyzed the data, but Obama suffered a "race penalty" of 5 percentage points. This means that a considerable number of white Americans voted against Obama because he is black.

This may have been partly offset by black voters, but the estimate is that he got, at best, a 1 percentage point bump from black voters. The net effect is that Obama should have captured 56.9 percent of the popular vote. The overall conclusion is that America has not quite achieved the post-racial society that many hoped we had reached.

Romney: a religion penalty in 2012?

Now, let's look at the other side. There is prejudice in our country against Mormons, as many surveys have reported. This could result in a "religion penalty" for Romney. The size of this potential penalty is anybody's guess at this point. It is possible, however, that the two penalties will cancel out, yielding a popular vote similar to what we would expect for, say, two white male Protestant presidential candidates.

Do you think Obama will suffer a race penalty again?

Will Romney suffer a religion penalty?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.


Sarah Rigg

Tue, Oct 23, 2012 : 1:01 p.m.

I did wonder, when Romney got the nomination, if it would backfire with hard-core evangelical Christians who pretty much consider Mormonism a cult. I know at least one die-hard REpublican voter who really doesn't want to vote for a Mormon and so is undecided how he's going to vote this year.