Minority Representation Requires Minority Candidates: The Surprising Success of Latinos in White Districts

The article, “Ignorance is Bias: The Effect of Latino Losers on Models of Latino Representation” by Eric Gonzalez Juenke, will appear in the July 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science and it is currently available on the “Early View” page of the Wiley-Blackwell website for the AJPS.  Here, Professor Juenke provides a summary of its content:

More than ten thousand of our fellow citizens are running for state legislative office this summer and fall. These men and women are old and young (some very young: http://upi.com/2986524), experienced and amateur, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Green Partiers and independents. The thousands and thousands of state legislative elections that take place every year create a unique laboratory for political scientists to study all kinds of questions about our democracy. Over the last fifty years, one of the most important questions about our political system has been, “Can minority officeholders consistently win elections in white majority districts?” The answers to this question address the fundamental promises of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and broader concerns about the nature of representation and political equality that affect all Americans.

I evaluate this question directly in my recent article “Ignorance is Bias: The Effect of Latino Losers on Models of Latino Representation.” There are reasons to suspect that minority candidates have a difficult time winning office outside of majority-minority districts. Many white voters are bigoted against racial and ethnic minorities, and minority officeholders are incredibly rare in white districts. For decades, the lack of minority representatives in white districts has been explained by white voter bias. I demonstrate that a singular focus on voters, and particularly white voters, obscures a second, and perhaps more significant cause of minority under-representation: a scarcity of minority candidates in white districts.

Nearly every aggregate study of minority legislative representation in the last forty years has observed outcomes of elections (officeholders), rather than the supply of minority candidates. Because of this, scholars have left a large amount of important data, the election losers, out of their models of minority representation. I use state legislative candidate data from the year 2000 to test models of Latino representation that correct for first-stage selection bias. Once candidate self-selection is taken into account, the probability of electing a Latino increases enormously. I then use data from 2010 to make out-of-sample predictions, which clearly favor the conditional model. The most important reason that Latino representation is low in state legislatures is not because white voters will not support them, but because Latino candidates are not showing up on the ballot in the general election.

To put these findings in a broader context, the previous literature on this question would characterize people like Marco Rubio, Barack Obama, Ken Salazar, Ted Cruz and Cory Booker as outliers, rare minority successes in white majority elections. My research instead suggests that these successes are quite commonplace, if we actually account for where minority candidates are on the ballot.

About the Author: Eric Gonzalez Juenke serves in a joint appointment at between the Department of Political Science and the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at Michigan State University.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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