Michael Tesler


Michael Tesler

Assistant Professor of Political Science

Mike Cohea/Brown University
The national elections of 2008 and 2012 may be the perfect terrain for a political scientist interested in the effects of racial attitudes on politics. “It’s an exciting time,” Michael Tesler says, ”especially if you’re a political junkie.”

Timing was definitely on Michael Tesler’s side. A self-proclaimed “political junkie,” Tesler was studying political science in graduate school at the University of California–Los Angeles in 2007. With graduate studies underway in public opinion, voting behavior, and race, he was particularly interested in exploring the impact of symbolic attitudes such as racial prejudice and patriotism on elections. And then, Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee for U.S. president. As Tesler says, he “hopped on board the Obama train” and his research took off.

Together with his adviser David Sears, Tesler applied his scholarly work to the 2008 presidential race. They wrote a series of papers together about effect of race in the presidential election and eventually published a book, Obama's Race The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America (University of Chicago Press, 2010). The book argues that the 2008 election was more polarized by racial attitudes than any other presidential election on record, and they assert there were two sides to this racialization: resentful opposition to Obama and racially liberal support for Obama.

“We found that racial liberals loved Obama, while racial conservatives hated him, much more than they would in a similar situation with a white Democarat,” said Tesler.

And the implications? “We can’t say what the net effects are, but we can say that the country will now be a lot more polarized by racial attitudes and race — and that has a lot of important implications, given what a scar race continues to be. People talk about partisan polarization, but once it becomes infused with race, it becomes even more explosive.”

Following the book publication in 2010, Tesler was the principal investigator on two related projects funded by the National Science Foundation dealing with the “spillover of racialization” — how racial attitudes have become infused in Obama’s policy choices. Tesler and his colleagues re-interviewed more than 3,000 people initially tracked during the 2008 election and found, for example, that Obama’s strong association with health care reform “unambiguously racialized white Americans’ opinions about this issue.”

“Racial attitudes, for instance, had a considerably larger impact on our panel respondents’ health care opinions in November 2009 than they did before Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee for president,” he said. “Moreover, the experiments embedded in that re-interview survey revealed that health care policies were significantly more racialized when they were framed as part of President Obama’s plan than they were for respondents told that these exact same proposals were part of President Clinton’s 1993 reform efforts.”

Currently, Tesler is starting a new project on media politics and the power of mass communications. He is also, not surprisingly, “jazzed” about the upcoming 2012 election, especially because he’ll be teaching the “Campaigns and Elections” course this spring.

“It’s an exciting time. Especially if you’re a political junkie.”