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Name calling among politicians and their supporters and opponents is nothing new.

The level of the venom, however, often is much higher when an underlying hatred based on race is at work. So when incumbent President George W. Bush made fun of opponent Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for “flip-flopping” positions on the war in Iraq, it was considered funny, and even clever, when Bush supporters brought flip-flops to rallies and waved them in the air.

Ultimately, though, it was a campaign between two privileged white men, separated by ideology, but race, ethnicity and religious affiliation were not factors, unlike 2008 when Barack Obama was described as not American, a “secret Muslim,” the N-word and portrayed in emails, on websites, flyers and campaign memorabilia as a chimpanzee.

“Name-calling is more direct, more personal. If it sticks, it is much more damaging than a traditional negative ad because it creates a bias against the very person,” blogger Joe Patrice wrote back in February in Recess Appointment.

“Name calling can be effective because it creates a strong bond among adherents to the bias,” he adds.

Playing to those biases has been particularly favored by conservative radio and television pundits.

Last week, for example, radio talk host Barbara Espinosa called President Obama “the first monkey president” on her show, “Hair on Fire.”

The remarks came in response to a call from a listener who said Obama was a communist with “rabbit ears.”

“Well, I don’t call him “rabbit ears,” I call him a monkey,” she told the caller. “I don’t believe in calling him the first black president, I call him the first monkey president….I voted for the white guy, myself,” referring to Obama’s 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Another caller took Espinosa to task and asked if it was really necessary to descend into name calling.

“This show just took a very interesting turn. I’ll be honest with you. It’s amazing that people who supposedly care about freedom are unwilling to be tolerant of any other idea other than their own,” said the listener who identified himself as “Joe.”  “You know, I’m not saying their ideas are right, but how about citing them intellectually instead of calling names? I have to say to you, the few things I just heard, they’re insulting. I mean, straight up insulting, and I think anyone listening would feel the same way.”

Click here to listen to the conversation.

Espinosa was unfazed. She later said her remarks were constitutionally protected and even tried to argue that monkeys were “intelligent” creatures and that her reference was actually complimentary to the president.

While politically incorrect, Espinosa, as her show’s tagline suggests, may say what a lot of Americans think.

And those attitudes may have cost Obama votes in 2008 and could cost him more in this year’s campaign.

“I argue that any votes Obama gained due to his race in the general election (in 2008) were not nearly enough to outweigh the cost of racial animus, meaning race was a large net negative for Obama,” Stephens-Davidowitz a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Harvard University, who conducted research on the effect of “racial animus” on voting patterns, said in a 53-page report.

While other factors, including a staggeringly bad economy and U.S. involvement in two wildly unpopular wars, helped propel him to the presidency, candidate Obama still lost 3 to 5 percentage points in the national popular vote, Stephens-Davidowitz estimated.

Such a differential in a close race between two candidates in which race was not a factor could have been enough to change the outcome, Stephens-Davidowitz wrote.

The author referred to a piece he wrote, which ran June 9 in The New York Times, in which he described his methodology in measuring bias.

“Quantifying the effects of racial prejudice on voting is notoriously problematic. Few people admit bias in surveys,” Stephens-Davidowitz wrote. “So I used a new tool, Google Insights, which tells researchers how often words are searched in different parts of the United States.”

“The conditions under which people use Google — online, most likely alone, not participating in an official survey — are ideal for capturing what they are really thinking and feeling. You may have typed things into Google that you would hesitate to admit in polite company. I certainly have,” he wrote for The Times. “The majority of Americans have as well: we Google the word ‘porn’ more often than the word ‘weather.’”

He looked at research queries that included racially-charged language, including racist jokes and hate literature. He used data from 2004-2007 for a measure not directly influenced by feelings toward Obama. From 2008 onward, Stephens-Davidowitz said, “‘Obama’ is a prevalent term in racially-charged searches.”

If his theory is correct, Stephens-Davidowitz said, race could actually work against Obama in November and cost him key swing states Ohio, Florida and possibly Pennsylvania.

Essentially, sticks and stones can hurt bones, but racially-charged words can kill a campaign.


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