Republicans won back the Senate because Obama is black. True or false?

Is Obama's race to blame for the Republican victories in 2014?

1. Background

Jimmy Williams, Executive Editor of Blue Nation Review, said on MSNBC last night that “if we did not have an African-American president in the white house as we speak right now, Mary Landrieu would not be in trouble. Kay Hagan would not be in any kind of trouble. Michelle Nunn would win overwhelmingly. And, you know, maybe Alison Lundergan Grimes would do well.”

Summarized more simply: If Obama weren’t black, Republicans would not have won back the Senate.

Of course, Republicans are loving it. All over conservative talk radio today, Republicans were paraphrasing Williams’ comment in a number of ways:

“Democrats think that racism is to blame for Republicans winning in the elections.”

“Democrats think the only reason Republicans won in the midterm election is that Obama is black.”

“Democrats claim that Republicans won back the Senate because Obama is black.”

To Republican pundits, it seems, all of these sentences mean the same thing. That is a problem, though.


Because all of those sentences do not mean the same thing.

2. Causes versus “contributing factors”

Let’s untangle Williams’ original statement for a moment. Just for now, let’s accept an abbreviated version of what he said as:

“If we did not have a black president, Republicans would not have won back the Senate.”

If you look closely at his original statement, he didn’t actually make any claims about the overall Senate majority; he only claimed that if the President wasn’t black, that would have helped Democratic candidates to some degree. But let’s skip over that for now, and imagine that the above sentence captures the essence of what he was trying to say.

It’s still a weird little double-negative of a statement, isn’t it? “If not x, then not y.” What does it mean?

Let’s try to examine it by looking at an analogy. Let’s suppose you went shopping, and you gathered together a gallon of milk ($3.67), a loaf of bread ($2.99), some sliced deli meat ($2.97), and a box of cereal ($2.24).  Now, you go to the check out counter, and you find you only have a $10 bill.  You look at your shopping basket, and you say,

“If I didn’t have that box of cereal, my total wouldn’t be over $10.”

That is an absolutely true statement. Without the cereal, the total is $9.63. Now, knowing that you agree with the above sentence, which of the following sentences do you also agree with?

“The cereal is to blame for the total cost being over $10.”

“The only reason the total cost is over $10 is the fact that you added the cereal.”

“Your shopping trip went over budget because of the cereal.”

Without some kind of explanation or context, these statements seem pretty strange. We know intuitively that the cereal isn’t the only thing that could be left out to bring the total under $10.  In fact, any one of the four items in the shopping basket could be returned to the shelf in order to solve your budgeting dilemma.

This is because we’re talking about an effect that obviously has multiple contributing factors. Each contributing factor is “a cause” of the end result in one sense, but none of them is “the cause” in a singular and ultimate sense.

It’s like when you look at green paint, which is made by combining yellow dye and blue dye. You probably wouldn’t say “that paint is green because of the blue dye” or “that paint is green because of the yellow dye”. Instead, you’d just say that both are contributing factors.

2. Blame, blame, blame!

Hang on a minute! There actually is a situation where you might say, “That paint is green because of the blue dye!” or even “Blue dye is to blame for that paint being green!”

The situation where that makes sense is where you wanted blue paint. You planned on blue paint. The paint is supposed to be blue. But at some point along the way, this undesirable and unexpected thing happened, that wasn’t supposed to happen: some yellow dye got mixed in!

(Suddenly I’m getting flashbacks to those old “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” / “No, you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” advertisements from Reeces.)

The same goes for our little grocery shopping analogy. If you weren’t supposed to buy cereal–that is to say, if cereal was an impulse buy that wasn’t on your original shopping list and isn’t something you normally buy–then it would be perfectly sensible for you to single it out and say, “My shopping trip went over budget because of the cereal.”

Or even: “The cereal is to blame for me going over budget!”

Now a sensible person knows that this isn’t the same thing as saying, “The cereal is the only reason the groceries went over budget”; rather, it’s saying, “The cereal is a particularly unusual and undesirable factor, and if it hadn’t been in the picture then the groceries would not have gone over budget.”

In that sense, the cereal is “responsible”, and gets the blame.

3. The word “because”

So let’s go back to the statement in the title: “Republicans won back the Senate because Obama is black.” What does that sentence mean?

First, let’s be clear: that’s not what Williams actually said. But it’s related to what Williams said. You could say it is implied by what Williams said.

Any sane and normal person knows that many factors lead to the Republicans taking back the Senate. One factor is redistricting. Another factor is the particular selection of which seats happened to be up for reelection. Another factor is the fact that the President is at the end of his second term in office, and that is a time when people most often swing their sympathies to the opposite side.

And yes, one of the factors might even be that the people in the states that swung Republican even liked the ideas and the policies of their Republican candidates.

So if someone says, “Republicans won back the Senate because Obama is black,” or even “Obama’s race is to blame for the Republican victories in the 2014 elections,” they are saying something very specific.

They are not claiming that redistricting or policy issues were not factors at all. They are simply saying that redistricting and policy issues are normal, expected, run-of-the-mill factors that everyone always plans on and expects. They are saying, “If this election were like all of the other elections, where we also had redistricting and policy issues at play, but where the race of the president was not a factor, the result would have been different.”

It’s the same kind of statement as, “The by groceries cost too much because of the cereal.”

4. True or false?

You may agree, or you may disagree. You might say, “Even if we had a white president, people like conservative governing and policies so much  that Republicans would have taken back the Senate anyway!”

You might say, “Even if we had a white president, the states in question have been so Gerrymandered that it would have been a Republican landslide anyway!”

You might say, “Democrats always suck at turning out the vote in mid-term elections, so no matter who was president the Republicans would have taken back the Senate!”

Whether you are liberal or conservative, there are plenty of arguments you could make for not thinking that Obama’s race is “to blame” for the Republican victory.

But do not allow people to mislead you about what the statement “Republicans won back the Senate because Obama is black” actually means. It doesn’t mean that other factors played no role at all. It doesn’t mean that people vote only on the basis of race. It doesn’t mean that racism is somehow the only reason that people might vote Republican.

All it means is that the race of the president is an unusual factor that had an undesirable influence that contributed to the outcome of the elections.

What do you think? Is that true or false?