Does Candidate Race Impact Who Turns Out to Vote?

The forthcoming article “Candidates or Districts? Reevaluating the Role of Race in Voter Turnout” by Bernard L. Fraga is summarized by the author here:

The recent film “Selma” highlighted the struggle by African-Americans to win voting rights. Yet even as we mark the 50th anniversary of these events, Black, Latino, and Asian American turnout continues to lag non-Hispanic White turnout. The 2008 and 2012 elections appeared to be an exception, however: Black turnout matched or exceeded White turnout nationally. Given Barack Obama’s candidacy, media naturally asserted that his historic run encouraged African-Americans to turn out when they otherwise would have stayed home. The same sort of candidate race-turnout connection also forms a tenet of modern political science understandings of race and politics. But does candidate race impact who turns out to vote? If so, do we see a similar pattern across racial/ethnic groups?

In “Candidates or Districts? Reevaluating the Role of Race in Voter Turnout,” I examined and contrasted White, Black, Latino, and Asian American turnout via detailed, individual-level voter registration records. The focus of the study was on recent congressional primary and general elections, where hundreds of candidates of various racial/ethnic backgrounds seek office each election cycle. Importantly, the analysis was conducted at the state or congressional district level, thus allowing me to account for demographic and partisan differences across jurisdictions using Census data.

In line with past work, I find that when minority candidates are on the ballot, minority turnout is often substantially higher. However, the relationship between candidate race and turnout is overshadowed of a more robust impact of “district” race and turnout: Black and Latino citizens are more likely to turn out to vote in places where they compose a large share of the population. Since Black and Latino candidates tend to seek office in places where their ethnic group is a substantial portion of the population, we see a spurious relationship between candidate background and participation better explained by the demographic (that is, racial/ethnic) makeup of the districts themselves. After accounting for this factor, we see no difference in rates of turnout attributable to the race/ethnicity of congressional candidates. Asian Americans, America’s fastest-growing minority group, also show no signs of increased turnout when same-race candidates are on the ballot, nor do non-Hispanic White citizens.

In short, I demonstrate that candidate race matters less than the unique racial/ethnic makeup of the places these candidates usually seek office. But what explains such a finding? One possibility is that voters are more likely to turn out when their ethnic group holds sway in election outcomes, or has done so historically. Another is that savvy politicians (of any race) will mobilize groups when they have to to win election; mobilization of a large, cohesive bloc of minority voters may be an obvious strategy to politicians of any background. More work needs to be done to understand which of these processes is occurring, but from a practical standpoint these findings clarify what matters and what does not when it comes to race and voter turnout. As America becomes more diverse, minority groups will play an even larger role in determining election outcomes. Perhaps a long-elusive equality in rates of participation will accompany such changes.

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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.