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date: 16 February 2020

Racial Priming with Implicit and Explicit Messages

Summary and Keywords

An expansive body of research known as racial priming consistently shows that media and campaign content can make racial attitudes more important factors in Americans’ political evaluations. Despite the well-established racial priming findings, though, there are some lingering questions about this line of research that have not been adequately settled by the extant literature. Perhaps the most frequently debated issue involves the effectiveness of implicit and explicit racial appeals. Can explicit appeals that directly invoke race and/or racial stereotypes, for example, effectively activate racial attitudes in white Americans’ political opinions? Or do racial appeals have to be implicit in nature, making only coded references to race in order to prime racially conservative support for political candidates and public policies? Along with this important topic, there are additional questions raised by the existing racial priming research, which include: Who is most susceptible to racial priming? Are political attacks on other minority groups, such as Muslims and Latinos, as potent as the appeals to anti-black stereotypes and resentments upon which the racial priming research is based? How did Obama’s presidency, which both heightened the salience of race in political discourse and increased the importance of racial attitudes in Americans’ partisan preferences, affect the media’s ability to prime race-based considerations in mass political evaluations?

Keywords: racial priming, racial attitudes, political communications, public opinion, Barack Obama


Newt Gingrich’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination headed to South Carolina in January 2012 in desperate need of a spark. After he led the GOP field by double digits in the national polls just one month earlier, Speaker Gingrich’s popular support plummeted.1 He had finished in fourth and fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, respectively, and he was now trailing far behind Mitt Romney in polling averages of the next primary state, South Carolina.2 Gingrich, however, kept his presidential campaign’s flagging hopes alive with a stunning come-from-behind victory in the Palmetto State. In fact, his 12-percentage-point South Carolina win even catapulted him back atop the national polls for a short while before his presidential campaign eventually flamed out for good.

The turning point for his campaign came on January 16, 2012, at a South Carolina primary debate. Newt Gingrich, who frequently faced accusations of racial insensitivity for referring to Barack Obama as “the food-stamp president” (Lopez , 2014, p. 131), had announced earlier in the month that he would go before the country’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, to “talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”3 Juan Williams disapprovingly asked the former House Speaker about these statements at the South Carolina primary debate, adding, “Can't you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?” Speaker Gingrich, however, utterly dismissed this question from the African American Fox News contributor, and he received a standing ovation from the audience when he reiterated his claim that blacks should demand jobs rather than food stamps. This racially charged debate exchange garnered considerable media attention, leading many to suspect that Newt Gingrich’s much-publicized statements about African Americans fueled his South Carolina victory. Or as Jesse Jackson put it at the time, “Gingrich's campaign limped into South Carolina on life support. His revival came from his cunning peddling of a poisonous potion of race-bait politics to a virtually all-white electorate.”4

In political science parlance, Jesse Jackson’s statement suggested that Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary with racial priming. Racial priming research builds on the influential priming hypothesis (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987), which posits that the more attention campaigns and the media pay to a particular aspect of public life (i.e., race or race-evoking issues like affirmative action and welfare), the more citizens will rely on that consideration in their political evaluations (for a review, see Kinder, 2003). According to Rev. Jackson’s account, then, Gingrich’s comments about African Americans and the media’s sustained attention to them primed (or activated) racial attitudes, thereby making racially resentful whites—i.e., those who think black Americans are not trying hard enough to succeed—more supportive of his candidacy. There is some empirical evidence to support that contention, too. Consistent with the racial priming hypothesis, Gingrich’s postdebate upswing in the national polls was indeed concentrated among the most racially conservative Republicans (Tesler, 2012a).5

Speaker Gingrich’s race-fueled South Carolina surge adds to an impressive body of social science results showing how media and campaign content often make racial attitudes more important factors in Americans’ political evaluations. Despite the well-established racial priming findings, though, there are some lingering questions about this line of research that have not been adequately settled by the extant literature. Perhaps the most frequently debated issue is the effectiveness of implicit and explicit racial appeals. Can explicit appeals that directly invoke race and/or racial stereotypes, for example, effectively activate racial attitudes in white Americans’ political opinions? Or do racial appeals have to be implicit in nature, making only coded references to race in order to prime racially conservative support for political candidates and public policies?

Along with this important topic of the relative effectiveness of implicit and explicit racial cues, there are additional questions raised by the existing racial priming research, including: Who is most susceptible to racial priming? Are political attacks on other minority groups, such as Muslims and Latinos, as potent as the appeals to anti-black stereotypes and resentments upon which the racial priming research is based? And, how did Obama’s presidency, which both heightened the salience of race in the political discourse and increased the importance of racial attitudes in Americans’ partisan preferences, affect the media’s ability to prime race-based considerations in mass political evaluations? The existing priming research provides some preliminary answers to these questions.

Racial Priming Research

Racial priming is typically defined as the increased impact of racial attitudes on evaluations of relevant political candidates or policies (Mendelberg, 2001, 2008). This research, which convincingly shows that race-based communications can cause racial considerations to become more important ingredients of Americans’ political evaluations, builds on groundbreaking work on the priming hypothesis. Several experimental and quasi-experimental priming studies, for example, show that campaigns and media coverage can prime (e.g., activate) considerations like performance evaluations of politicians, partisanship, moral and religious values, patriotism, and other long-standing predispositions, thereby making them more important determinants of mass political evaluations (Gelman & King, 1993; Kalmoe & Gross, 2015; Hetherington, 1996; Hillygus & Jackman, 2003; Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Krosnick & Brannon, 1993; Lenz, 2012; Miller & Krosnick, 2000; Sides & Vavreck, 2013; Stoker, 1993; Tesler, 2010, 2015b; Tesler & Sears, 2010).

It is important to note, however, that not all attitudes are equally likely to be primed by media content. Instead, the extent to which political communications can prime specific considerations depends in large part on how strongly the public holds the underlying beliefs (Tesler, 2015a). Take, for example, some of the most salient policy differences between presidential candidates in recent election years, such as Social Security privatization in 2000 and healthcare reform in the 2012 campaign. The sustained campaign and media attention to these issues actually changed very few votes during the election years because the public generally does not have strong preferences about such complicated fiscal policies (Lenz, 2009, 2012; Tesler, 2015b; Tesler & Zaller, 2014). In other words, Americans’ weakly held issue preferences are rarely primed by political campaigns (Lenz, 2009, 2012). Rather, since individuals usually have stronger sentiments about presidents and presidential nominees than they do about the issues that politicians campaign on, Americans tend to respond to campaigns by merely changing their policy positions to comport with their preexisting support for their favored presidential candidates. Thus, priming generally requires attention to an aspect of political life that people really care about.

By this standard, attitudes about African Americans are particularly ripe for priming. After all, racial attitudes are one of Americans’ most strongly held sociopolitical predispositions (Henry & Sears, 2009; Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Sears & Funk, 1999; Tesler & Sears, 2010), and race has long been the most visceral issue in American politics.6 Individuals usually acquire their feelings about different racial groups early in life through pre-adult socialization,7 with the attitudes solidifying during their formative adult years (ages 18 to 29) and persisting rather stably thereafter (Schuman et al., 1997; Sears & Funk, 1999). Such stable predispositions are, in turn, especially susceptible to priming from campaign and media content, since strongly held attitudes bias information processing, influence new evaluations, and guide behavior (Petty & Krosnick, 1995; Sears & Funk, 1999; Tesler, 2015a). Simply put, then, when political figures employ race-based appeals in their campaigns for elected office, a significant segment of the population is likely to change their votes based upon their underlying feelings toward African Americans.

Consistent with that expectation, a number of previous findings demonstrate that informational cues as subtle as race-coded words (i.e., “inner city” or “welfare”), black imagery, and especially some combination of the two can often make racial attitudes a more central determinant of public opinion about a wide array of political issues.

Racial Priming in Presidential Candidate Preferences

One general rule of thumb for all priming studies is that it should be harder for political communications to activate specific considerations (e.g., racial attitudes) in Americans’ candidate preferences8—especially in their assessments of presidential nominees—than it is to prime such attitudes in their public policy positions. For, as mentioned earlier, Americans’ generally have more crystallized preferences about presidential candidates than they do about most public policies. Those relatively crystallized preferences should then be more difficult to alter through priming. Even with this higher bar set for racial priming in candidate evaluations, though, both observational and experimental studies show that race-based appeals can strongly prime racial attitudes during presidential campaigns, making those considerations more important in white Americans’ evaluations of candidates for president.

In fact, the most famous racial priming results arguably come from the 1988 presidential election. During that campaign, George H. W. Bush infamously invoked a violent black criminal, Willie Horton, to attack the liberal crime policies of his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis. Several scholars have persuasively argued that Republicans intentionally used Willie Horton—a convicted murderer who brutally assaulted a white couple while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison during Dukakis’s tenure as governor of the state—to appeal to white voters’ racial anxieties (Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Lopez, 2014; McIlwain & Caliendo, 2011; Mendelberg, 2001). More importantly, empirical analyses suggest that the media’s attention to the Horton issue primed racially conservative support for Bush’s candidacy (Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Mendelberg, 2001). Or, more simply put, the studies showed that racial resentment was a stronger determinant of whites’ presidential candidate preferences after the Horton issue first became salient—an especially important finding.

Racial priming experiments—studies that randomly assign some subjects to receive racialized messages—provide even stronger evidence that subtle race cues in mass communications can activate racial attitudes in white Americans’ evaluations of presidential candidates. Valentino’s (1999) experimental results, for example, showed that subjects who were randomly assigned to view local news stories containing mug shots of minorities activated race-based considerations in whites’ evaluations of Bill Clinton during the 1996 presidential campaign. Likewise, randomly assigning respondents to view a fictitious advertisement from George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, which showed negative images of blacks while the narrator accused Democrats of wanting “to spend your tax dollars on wasteful government programs,” strongly primed racially resentful support for his candidacy (Valentino, Hutchings, & White, 2002). And Mitt Romney’s actual August 2012 ad that accused Barack Obama of ending the work requirements that accompany welfare benefits—an ad criticized at the time for straining the bounds of credulity to make the long-standing race-infused wedge issue of welfare a centerpiece of his presidential campaign9—significantly activated racial attitudes in white Americans’ assessments of Governor Romney in a national survey experiment (Tesler, 2012c, 2016a).

These significant racial priming results from half of the presidential election years between 1988 and 2012 are all the more remarkable because Americans’ assessments of major-party presidential nominees are based upon a more crystallized set of criteria—in particular, partisanship and performance—than most other political evaluations. The results, therefore, suggest that race-based cues in the informational environment are especially likely to activate racial attitudes in white Americans’ political beliefs.

Racial Priming in Public Policy Preferences

It should certainly come as no surprise, then, that several studies also show that racialized messages in mass communications—i.e., messages that link certain racial groups to Americans’ more weakly held issue positions—have also powerfully primed racial attitudes in public opinion. Or, as Hurwitz and Peffley (2005, p. 109) concluded, “When messages are framed in such a way to reinforce the relationship between a particular policy and a particular group, it becomes far more likely that individuals will evaluate the policy on the basis of their evaluations of the group.”

Over time, observational studies, for example, show that the emergence of media coverage linking welfare benefits with “undeserving blacks” helped white Americans bring their racial antagonisms to bear on opposition to this policy (Gilens, 1999; Kellstedt, 2003; Winter, 2008). Likewise, Winter (2008) convincingly supported his argument that media coverage connecting Social Security to both white recipients and to such symbolically white attributes as hard work and just rewards also made this nonracial policy about race.

Once again, experiments offer even more convincing evidence that race-based cues can prime racial attitudes in white Americans’ policy preferences. Several experimental studies have shown that mass communications that connect specific issues to African Americans can make racial attitudes a more important ingredient in public policy preferences. Indeed, racial attitudes have been significantly primed in white Americans’ policy positions by experiments that randomly assigned respondents to receive racialized cues about such issues as crime, gun control, welfare, affirmative action, healthcare, taxes, government spending, early education programs, Social Security, the minimum wage, and even the Iraq War (Federico, 2004; Huber & Lapinski, 2006; Hurwitz & Peffley, 1997, 2005; Kinder & Kam, 2009; Mendelberg, 2001; Nelson & Kinder, 1996; Peffley & Hurwitz, 2007, 2010; Tesler, 2012c; White, 2007; Winter, 2008).

While these racial priming studies convincingly show that race-based cues can make racial considerations a more potent force in Americans’ political beliefs, experiments also suggest that mass communications can effectively deactivate the influence of racial attitudes in public opinion. Indeed, counter-stereotypical cues (i.e., white criminals, white welfare recipients, and/or white affirmative action beneficiaries) that were embedded in racial priming experiments have helped dampen the impact of racial predispositions on white Americans’ political evaluations (Gilliam & Iyengar, 2000; Mendelberg, 2001; Nelson & Kinder, 1996; Valentino, Hutchings, & White, 2002).

All told, then, the results from a generation of racial priming studies are clear: Elite communications from campaigns and the news media can lead to more or less racial conflict in American politics. When political campaigns and media content contain racialized messages about candidates for elected office and public policies, mass politics generally grows more polarized by racial attitudes. When these same communications, however, employ counterstereotypical cues to depict the same issues and candidates, the political impact of racial attitudes generally recedes in kind.

Racial Priming with Implicit and Explicit Cues

There is little doubt that political communications have the capacity to make racial attitudes a more or less potent factor in public opinion. But, as mentioned in the introduction, some questions about racial priming still remain. Perhaps the most significant issue currently debated by social scientists is whether mass communications need only be implicitly connected to race in order to effectively prime racial attitudes in public opinion. “Implicit messages,” Mendelberg (2008, p. 110) explains, “are distinguished from explicit messages, which use racial nouns or adjectives to endorse white prerogatives, to express anti-black sentiment, to represent racial stereotypes, or to portray a threat from African Americans.” The subtle race cues are thought to be especially effective in activating racial attitudes because they connect African Americans to political evaluations without audience members’ consciously knowing that the message violates strong societal norms of racial equality (Hurwitz & Peffley, 2005; Mendelberg, 2001; Valentino, Hutchings, & White, 2002; Winter, 2008).

Explicit appeals, on the other hand, can lose their political potency because even many racially resentful whites are unwilling to give their support to a candidate who appears to be openly racist. Mendelberg (2001), for instance, famously showed that the aforementioned Willie Horton issue activated racially resentful support for George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential candidacy only during the period of the campaign when the media did not draw attention to the racial stereotypes of black criminality that many assumed the campaign’s invocation of Horton was designed to tap into.10 In fact, Mendelberg found that racially resentful support for Vice President Bush was deactivated after the media explicitly covered the Willie Horton issue’s strong racial overtones. Related experimental research also shows that implicit messages, which indirectly appeal to race, are more effective at activating white racial attitudes than explicit racial cues (Mendelberg, 1997, 2001; White, 2007).

A number of studies, however, have challenged the argument that racial appeals must be only implicitly race-coded in order to effectively prime white racial attitudes. Perhaps most notably, Huber and Lapinski’s (2006, p. 439) findings suggest that “implicitly racial policy appeals do not prime existing racial predispositions any more effectively than explicitly racial ones.” Consistent with that result, Hutchings et al. (2010, p. 1) showed “that explicit, and even inflammatory, racial appeals can prime white racial attitudes when coupled with an effort to blame minorities for widespread economic misfortune.” Peffley and Hurwitz (2007) also found that explicitly connecting African Americans to the death penalty activated racially conservative support for capital punishment. Valentino et al. (2013) were unable to similarly prime white racial resentment with explicitly racial messages in mass assessments of Barack Obama and his policies. Yet, contrary to prior research suggesting that such explicitly racial appeals should neutralize the political impact of race, Valentino and his colleagues found that even extremely racist messages did not deactivate the large pre-existing effects of racial attitudes on opposition to Obama-related political opinions. Banks (2016) similarly showed that priming respondents with critques of Donald Trump’s racist comments had little influence on the very strong relationship between racial resentment and support for Trump’s general election candidacy. Moreover, drawing attention to race-based opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency in survey experiments—that is, making opposition to Obama explicitly racial—actually primed white Americans’ racial attitudes in their disapproval of Obama’s job as president (Tesler, 2016d). Finally, research results suggested that Newt Gingrich’s repeated comments about how African Americans should be demanding jobs instead of food stamps—statements that would unambigously be classified as an explicit racial appeal based upon the definition above—activated racially resentful support for his presidential candidacy in early 2012.

To be sure, the preponderance of evidence still suggests that implicit race cues are probably more effective at priming white Americans’ racial attitudes than explicitly racial messages (Mendelberg, 2008), but the studies just cited also indicate that explicit racial appeals are not necessarily rejected outright, and can sometimes be politically potent. The question, therefore, is: When and how can explicit racial appeals prime white Americans’ racial attitudes?

When Can Explicit Racial Appeals Work?

Mendelberg’s (2001) pathbreaking argument that campaign appeals must indirectly appeal to race in order to galvanize support from racially resentful white voters is premised on the strong societal norm of racial equality. In the pre-civil-rights era, when white Americans overwhelmingly subscribed to the ideology of white supremacy (Schuman et al., 1997), overtly racist appeals were both common and politically expedient (Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Klinkner & Smith, 2002; Mendelberg, 2001). But such old-fashioned racism dramatically declined in the second half of the twentieth century, and there was a growing acceptance of racial equality in principle. By the 1990s, in fact, white Americans’ support for de jure segregation had all but vanished from their survey reports (Schuman et al., 1997). Consequently, political appeals to white Americans’ more persistent racial resentments, stereotypes, and anxieties became increasingly veiled or coded in order to avoid turning off voters by appearing to be overtly racist (Edsall & Edsall, 1992; Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Lopez, 2014; McIlwain & Caliendo, 2011; Mendelberg, Junn, & Czaja, 2011).

The norm of racial equality, however, may not be as strongly held as these analyses suggest. Huddy and Feldman (2009), for instance, found that about 40% of whites openly state that “a little” or more of the economic difference between blacks and whites can be explained by “racial differences in intelligence” and “fundamental genetic differences between the races.” Along with beliefs in black biological inferiority, a second component of old-fashioned racism—desire for social distance between the races—can be readily found in white Americans’ survey responses as well. In national surveys, over half of whites say they prefer that their close family members marry white spouses instead of African Americans (Tesler, 2013), and on stereotype scales, nearly of half of white Americans still rate their own group as more intelligent than African Americans (Piston, 2010).

The norm of racial equality also differs substantially by subpopulation. Certain demographic groups are more egalitarian on matters of race than others. White southerners, for instance, have long been more likely to harbor old-fashioned racist support for segregation and desire for social distance between the races (Schuman et al., 1997; Valentino & Sears, 2005). Poorly educated whites have also conistently lagged behind their better educated counterparts in their support for racial equality (Page & Shapiro, 1992; Schuman et al., 1997; Sniderman & Piazza, 1993).11 Furthermore, ever since Barack Obama became president, Republicans have been significantly more likely to hold old-fashioned racist beliefs than Democrats (Tesler, 2013, 2016d).

The effectiveness of explicit racial appeals should, therefore, depend in large part on how strongly the message’s target audience subscribes to the norm of racial equality. In keeping with that contention, Huber and Lapinski (2006) showed that explicit racial appeals primed racial resentment in poorly educated whites’ policy opinions because this group does not reject such messages as illegitimate. Southern men can also be persuaded by explicit racial appeals that clearly violate the norm of racial equality (Hutchings, Walton, & Benjamin, 2010). So it is not too surprising that the example of Newt Gingrich’s standing by his statement that African Americans need to demand jobs, not food stamps, received a standing ovation at the South Carolina debate and helped fuel his surge in subsequent Republican primary polls. After all, both Republicans and southerners are significantly less likely than other Americans to subscribe to strong societal norms of racial equality.

On a related note, the extent to which explicit appeals are able to prime white Americans’ racial attitudes should also depend on how the social science researcher measures anti-black predispositions. Racial priming studies most often utilize “new racism” measures, such as Kinder and Sanders’ (1996) racial resentment scale. Unlike old-fashioned racist attitudes, modern racism does not embrace notions of black biological and social inferiority. Instead, the new prejudice is characterized by “a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance, the work ethic, obedience, and discipline” (Kinder & Sears, 1981, p. 416). It is quite possible, then, for white Americans to hold such racially resentful beliefs and support racial equality in principle. Indeed, Mendelberg’s (2001) contention that racial appeals need be implicit in order to be effective is rooted in such ambivalence, whereby most whites hold racially egalitarian beliefs against formal segregation and discrimination but also think that African Americans as a group violate traditional values like individualism and self-reliance.

More blatant measures of racial prejudice, such as anti-black stereotypes and opposition to intimate interracial relationships, should engender much less ambivalence, though. That is, white Americans who are uncomfortable with intimate interracial relationships are not nearly as burdened by the norm of racial equality as many racially resentful whites are.12 For if they have fully internalized this societal norm, then they should also be fine with a close relative’s marrying someone of a different race (Tesler, 2016d). Consequently, we might expect explicit racial appeals to prime race-based support from the substantial minority of whites who still hold blatantly racist attitudes.

There is some evidence consistent with that contention, too. Hutching et al.’s (2010) aforementioned experiments showed that explicit, and even inflammatory, racial appeals primed the old-fashioned racist belief that African Americans are less intelligent than whites. Moreover, the abovementioned experimental study, in which white racial attitudes were explicitly primed in disapproval of Obama’s presidency by making such opposition explicitly racial, measured anti-black predispositions with two old-fashioned racism questions gauging opposition to interracial dating and support for close relatives’ marrying spouses of a different race (Tesler, 2016d). The same explicit racist opposition experiment, in fact, failed to prime less blatantly racist attitudes like racial resentment in white disapproval of Obama’s presidency.

So, while more work is surely needed to determine the circumstances in which explicit appeals can effectively activate white racial attitudes, the evidence suggests that it is not necessary for political messages to only implicitly reference race in order for racial priming to take place. Indeed, explicit messages that target audiences less wedded to the norm of racial equality, such as white southerners, Republicans, and the poorly educated, are likely to activate racial attitudes—especially old-fashioned racism—in mass political beliefs.

Racial Priming in the Obama Era

Barack Obama’s position as the first African American president has also raised some interesting issues for the racial priming hypothesis. On the one hand, Obama’s presidency undoubtedly heightened the salience of race in American political discourse (Kinder & Dale-Riddle, 2012; Tesler, 2016a; Tesler & Sears, 2010). That increased focus on race easily could have primed racial attitudes in mass assessments of Barack Obama, as the racial priming hypothesis would suggest. On the other hand, Barack Obama’s embodiment of race as a historical racial figure might mean that Americans did not need racialized communications in order to evaluate the president through a racial prism. Indeed, piror research suggests that racial attitudes are more difficult to prime when race is already an accessible consideration in public opinion about an issue (Huber & Lapinski, 2006). Based on those results, it has been argued that “the natural association between racial attitudes and Barack Obama’s candidacy should make it difficult to either deactivate or prime these racial predispositions” (Tesler & Sears, 2010, p. 35).

Racial attitudes, it turns out, were quite difficult to prime or deactivate in mass assessments of Barack Obama during his campaigns and presidency. The unusually large effects of racial resentment on Americans’ evaluations of Obama were unchanged over the course of both the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, despite many surges and declines in race-based rhetoric during those election years (Tesler, 2016a; Tesler & Sears, 2010). Consistent with those stable effects of racial attitudes, Valentino and colleagues’ (2013) aforementioned experiments were able neither to prime racial resentment in white Americans’ assessment of Barack Obama with implicit racial cues nor to deactivate it with explicitly racist messages. And, while the previously discussed welfare experiment from the 2012 presidential campaign significantly primed white racial resentment in public opinion about Mitt Romney, that experiment did not enhance the already large effects of racial attitudes on white’s evaluations of President Obama (Tesler, 2012c, 2016a).

As the Romney results indidcate, however, political evaluations that were not heavily influenced by race prior to Obama’s ascendancy were particularly ripe for racial priming during his presidency. In fact, a good deal of research suggests that communication connecting Obama to other politicians and policies, either naturally or experimentally, by itself primes racial attitudes in a wide assortment of political beliefs (Hillygus & Henderson, 2011; Kinder & Chudy, 2014; Knowles et al., 2010; Tesler, 2012a, 2013, 2015b, 2016a; Tesler & Sears, 2010; see also Sears et al., 1987, for a similar result with Jesse Jackson during the 1984 presidential primary). Or, as stated more formally elsewhere, “cues that connect racialized public figures [i.e., Obama] to specific issues are expected to activate racial considerations in mass opinion much the way that code words and other subtle race cues have linked African Americans with public policies in prior [racial priming] research” (Tesler, 2012a, p. 692).

One particularly important consequence of Barack Obama’s presidency, then, has been to extensively prime racial considerations in Americans’ political beliefs. This spillover of racialization from Barack Obama into related opinions has almost certainly polarized political preferences by racial predispositions more broadly than the well-documented effects of race-coded communications in previous racial priming research. For, aside from having to carefully avoid violating strong societal norms of racial equality, race cues can have short-lived priming effects, losing much of their impact when communications make new considerations salient (Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Tesler, 2012b).

Beyond Black and White: Priming Other Outgroup Antagonisms

As mentioned in the discussion of racial priming with explicit and implicit messages, the norm of racial equality may not be as universally held as is often portrayed in social science research. Yet, the vast majority of whites still reject openly discriminatory treatment of, and overtly racist views about, African Americans (Schuman et al., 1997). The same, however, cannot be said about attitudes toward every minority group in the United States.

In particular, Muslims and undocumented immigrants are viewed much less favorably than just about any racial, ethnic, and religious group in contemporary American society (Kalkan et al., 2009; Sides & Gross, 2012; Tesler & Sears, 2010). Both groups are, therefore, particularly vulnerable to explicit political attacks from politicians seeking to attract ethnocentric support from the substantial number of Americans who hold anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments. Since whites evaluate African Americans much more favorably than Muslims and undocumented immigrants, explicit appeals against the latter two groups should be more palatable to the public than anti-black appeals to racial antagonisms. The potential to exploit ethnocentric sentiments has been amplified, too, by the fact that attitudes about both Muslims and immigrants have increasingly shaped Americans’ partisan preferences in recent years (Abrajano & Hajnal, 2015; Tesler, 2011, 2016d; Tesler & Sears, 2010). Indeed, Sears and Tesler hypothesized that appeals to Islamophobia would be especially relevant and resonant in the Obama era, with a president in the White House who strongly evokes anti-Muslim predispositions (Tesler & Sears, 2010, p. 141).

Consistent with that expectation, there does indeed seem to have been a turn toward anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant appeals in recent election campaigns. Research on the 2006 and 2010 mid-term elections highlights the prevalence of messages denigrating immigrants and Muslims in the two congressional campaigns (McIlwain & Caliendo, 2011, ch. 5; Tesler, 2011). And, of course, Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign trafficked heavily in explicitly negative statements about undocumented immigrants and Muslims, going so far as to broadly condemn Mexican immigrant as criminals and to propose banning all Muslims from entering the United States. Those explicit appeals appeared to be quite successful, too. Preliminary research on the 2016 presidential elections suggests that Trump’s explicitly ethnocentric campaign made views about racial and ethnic minority groups more important in both the Republican primaries and in the general election than they had ever been before (Tesler, 2016b, 2016c, 2016d).

Nevertheless, there has been little research up to this point that systematically tests how effective implicit and explicit appeals against these two groups are at activating outgroup antagonisms. Nor have researchers identified how communications could deactivate animosities toward the groups in political beliefs. Therefore, understanding how anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant messages compare to the substantial body of work on racial priming detailed above should make for an especially fruitful research agenda in the years ahead.

Among the questions future research should address are:

  1. 1. Do anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant appeals hold the same capacity as race-based cues to activate outgroup attitudes in public opinion? The larger body of work on priming, along with preliminary data on the effectiveness of Trump’s 2016 campaign appeals, suggests that the answer is Yes. Yet, it is possible that race is such a salient social cue in American politics and society that anti-black appeals have a uniquely strong impact on white Americans’ political beliefs.

  2. 2. Do explicit appeals against Muslims and undocumented immigrants have the same potential as explicitly racist messages to backfire by violating strong societal norms of racial equality? The relative acceptability of expressing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments in contemporary American society, along with Trump’s presidential victory, suggests the answer is No, but it is certainly possible that any electoral gains from such explicit appeals could be offset by countermobilizing Americans who harbor good will toward the groups.

  3. 3. Is it possible for mass communications to deactivate the importance of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments in American politics with counterstereotypical cues, the same way that media content showing white criminals and white welfare recipients has neutralized the political impact of anti-black attitudes in prior racial priming research?

Answering these questions becomes increasingly important as the country diversifies and moves beyond the black–white binary that has characterized American racial politics for most of the country’s history. Indeed, the answers to these questions have broad implications for understanding whether political communications will increase the existing conflict between social groups in American politics or bridge the divide between the political preferences of racial, religious, and ethnic groups in an increasingly multicultural America.


For several good reasons, priming research has focused heavily on how race-coded messages activate attitudes about African Americans in public opinion. American politics, after all, has been organized around the black–white racial divide since the second half of the 20th century (Carmines & Stimson, 1989), with many presupposing that a substantial number of white Americans have changed their political opinions during that time based upon their strongly held attitudes about African Americans. The upshot of this sustained research agenda has been an extensive body of racial priming results that have unusually strong implications for American politics. Racial attitudes are emotionally charged in ways that nonracial ideological predispositions, like limited government, are not (Banks, 2014). So the increased impact of the attitudes in American politics produced by racial priming makes for a particularly explosive political atmosphere.

Despite more than a generation of racial priming research, though, there is still much to learn. There are unanswered questions about the relative effectiveness of different types of race cues and how the racial priming framework may or may not transfer over to political appeals against other minority groups. There are also unexplored questions about how minority groups—in particular, Latinos and Asian Americans—respond to political appeals against both African American and other racial and ethnic groups. Racial priming research has focused overwhelmingly on white Americans’ responses to such messages. Finally,while there has been research showing that explicit racial appeals can powerfully mobilize black public opinion (Peffley & Hurwitz, 2007, 2010; White, 2007), very little is known about how Latinos and Asian Americans react to implicit and explicit racial appeals.

Understanding how different racial and ethnic groups respond to political appeals against various racial and ethnic groups is especially important in an increasinlgly multicultural America and should therefore set the agenda for the next generation of research on racial priming with implicit and explicit messages.


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(1.) For trends in 2011–2012 Republican presidential nomination polling, see,

(4.) Quoted in: Jackson, J. (2012). Gingrich plays Old South race card of a bygone era. The HuffingtonPost, January 24, 2012.

(5.) Additional unpublished analyses further show that, even after accounting for several different attitudinal and demographic factors, racial resentment was the strongest predictor of individual-level changes in support for Speaker Gingrich from before to after the South Carolina primary.

(6.) In particular, research shows that racial attitudes are emotionally charged in ways that nonracial ideological considerations are not (Banks, 2014; Banks & Valentino, 2012). See Banks (2014) for an especially illuminating account of the role of anger in American racial politics.

(7.) There is some evidence suggesting that there is even a genetic, heritable component to attitudes toward outgroups.

(8.) To be sure, there are exceptions to this broad statement. For example, it should be easier for mass communications to prime specific predispositions in evaluations of such lesser-known presidential primary candidates as Gary Hart in 1984 and 1987 and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in 2012 (see Bartels, 1988; Stoker, 1993; Tesler, 2012a, 2012b) than it would be to activate the same predispositions in mass assessments of sitting presidents like Reagan and Obama, about whom the public has more knowledge and more crystallized criteria upon which to base their evaluations.

(9.) Such leading fact checkers as PolitiFact, the Washington Post’s fact checker, and all gave the ad their most dishonest rating. For more, see,

(10.) Kinder and Sanders (1996) and Mendelberg (2001) persuasively argue that the Bush campaign intentionally used the Willie Horton issue to appeal to racially conservative voters.

(11.) In the 2010–2014 General Social Survey, 17% of whites without a high school degree said that blacks had less inborn ability to learn than whites, compared to only 3% of those with a college degree who said the same thing.

(12.) Racial resentment and opposition to intimate interracial relationships are consistently correlated. Yet, the modal score on the racial resentment scale is often the most resentful, while the modal score on measures of old-fashioned racism is almost always the least racist position (Tesler, 2016d).