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IU research: Minority voters are not mobilized by the race of candidates

  • March 17, 2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Minority voters are more likely to vote when they compose the majority of their district, and they are generally not mobilized by the race or ethnicity of candidates, according to research by Bernard Fraga, assistant professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington.

The study, “Candidates or Districts? Reevaluating the Role of Race in Voter Turnout,” was published online in the American Journal of Political Science in February and will be featured in the print version of the journal in the fall. The publication coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“The turnout of minority groups is linked to the diversity of a district,” said Fraga, a faculty member in the Department of Political Science in IU Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. “This shows that candidates of any racial or ethnic background are going to mobilize the voters in their districts and do what it takes to win.”

The study draws two conclusions:

  • African-American and Latino citizens are more likely to vote when they reside in a majority-minority district, a district in which a racial minority constitutes an effective voting majority.
  • There is no difference in rates of turnout attributable to the race or ethnicity of candidates.

The research looked at individual-level turnout records of congressional elections, unlike past research that has relied on survey estimates of voter turnout. For a comprehensive analysis of the impact of race on voting, Fraga looked at participation in every congressional district across three recent elections.

An analysis of congressional elections offers a more nuanced analysis of minority voting habits nationwide than just analyzing presidential elections. Looking at congressional elections allowed Fraga to demonstrate how voters with similar interests nationwide react to the different statewide or regional manifestations of those topics.

Congressional elections are also much less salient to voters than presidential elections. Fraga said this makes it easier for researchers to understand whether race was a large motivator for voter turnout.

This study demonstrates that prior assumptions about minority voters turning out specifically because of the race of candidates are false. Fraga said he began with similar assumptions about minority voters when he started his research.

The new research does support previous findings that minorities vote in larger numbers than usual when a minority candidate is on the ballot. However, it shows that higher minority turnout is a product of candidates mobilizing voters successfully and not because of his or her ethnicity.

After combing through individual voting patterns, a nuanced story about what motivates minorities to vote emerged. The diversity of a city and the corresponding need to appeal to and mobilize minorities play a larger role in obtaining a large minority turnout than does the candidate’s ethnicity.

“One caveat to these findings is important,” Fraga said. “I am not saying minority candidates don’t matter for politics and the representation of minority interests.”

Instead, the study emphasizes that candidates of all races and ethnicities are primarily motivated by the same end goal: winning the election. This suggests that the more minority voters a district has, the more likely candidates are to work to win their support.

“The results show that candidates just do what it takes to win,” Fraga said. “More broadly this means that as the country becomes more diverse, candidates will find ways to mobilize more minority voters.”

Political scientists refer to this as the “electoral connection,” or the idea that to accomplish their policy and legislative goals, candidates must first focus on winning elections.

While this study did not look specifically at the 2008 presidential election, the findings suggest that the record mobilization of African Americans is not a simple story.

“We talk a lot about record African-American turnout, but white and Latino turnout was very high as well,” Fraga said. “Obama made a huge effort to mobilize many different groups, not just African Americans.”

This research raises the question of whether President Obama’s race or reaching out to minority groups was the factor that mobilized so many minorities in a presidential election.

Causality of voting is difficult to determine because voters choose where to live and are not randomly assigned to districts. However, redistricting happens every 10 years, and Fraga hopes that his analysis of the most recent round of redistricting will offer further clarification. Comparing voting patterns of individuals who find themselves in very different districts has the potential to further strengthen Fraga’s analysis.

“This is an optimistic story in some ways,” Fraga said. “Minority voters can be mobilized by candidates of any race, when they have to to win an election. As America becomes more diverse, there is the potential to include greater numbers of minority citizens in the political process.”

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