Though it’s well established that better-educated people tend to have more consistent political ideologies, anyone who remembers the welfare reform debate of the 1990s—a group that includes every journalist mentioned above—will find it hard to believe that the racial code around “welfare” would be obscure to any viewer, regardless of education. I do, too. But Federico and his co-authors present a strong case that opinions about welfare are more strongly shaped by racial attitudes among college-educated voters. And Tesler’s research offers some evidence that that’s true of the Romney ad specifically: over email, he told me that the “increased effects of racial resentment” after seeing the ad “were entirely concentrated among higher education respondents.” For his part, Enos agreed that these findings “just [don’t] seem intuitive.” But, he added, welfare “does seem to behave like nearly every other policy… high-education persons can connect them to other policies that fit coherently, low-education people cannot.”

Does that mean the journalistic accounts are wrong? Well, not necessarily. In his dispatch from the Detroit suburbs, Fournier writes about a firefighter and a contractor who seem pretty well versed in the racial codes of politics. He also reports that a GOP pollster identified a small number of white working-class voters moving from Obama to Romney, and declared it was “almost certainly because of the welfare ad.” The pollster might be right: Even if the academic analysis is mostly correct, after all, there could be regional variation or other exceptions. Or the pollster might be wrong, and just telling a racialized story where one didn’t exist—which would be interesting in its own right.

Even if the academic explanation underestimates the ad’s likely effect on working class whites, though, the research presents plenty of reason to believe that the coded appeal is being heard by college-educated whites—which is a part of the story that the journalistic accounts tend to skip over. As a group, the scholars actually tend to think that Romney won’t benefit much from this dynamic, for a few reasons: because racial attitudes are already built in to views about Obama; because the ad does more to remind people of their attitudes than to change their opinions; because, as Tesler’s research shows, many of the people who read the “code” will think less of Romney; and because the better-educated viewers who can decipher coded signals are generally reliable partisans in the first place. These are all good points. On the other hand, turnout can be just as important as persuasion, and Romney could benefit if the ad energizes his supporters. Based on how often the ad has aired, his campaign clearly thinks it’s boosting their effort.

So what’s the upshot for reporters here? It has been encouraging to see so many journalists, including some at the most mainstream of outlets, call out a campaign for its appeal to voters’ baser instincts. But there is, at the very least, reason to ask whether the coverage has reached too readily for familiar frames about racial resentment among working-class whites—and as a result, distorted the ways in which different groups of voters think about policy, and what the actual effect of the welfare ad is likely to be. It’s a concern journalists should keep in mind.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Greg Marx