There are several reasons to be skeptical of this scenario, particularly when we look at absolute levels of party support among light-skinned Latinos and Asian Americans. Furthermore, we only get a limited view of racial identification and group partisanship when we predict the future based on single surveys today. Finally, we have to take account of political issues—particularly immigration, which likely has wiped out any gains that might have been made from any appeals to “whiteness” directed at Latinos and Asian Americans.
That light-skinned Latinos are more predisposed toward the Republican Party than their darker-skinned compatriots is not something new. A statistically significant relationship between party identification and skin color can be found, for example, in the Latino National Political Survey (LNPS) from 1989-1990 (the graph presents LNPS results among adult citizens only, for purposes of comparison to the 2012 American National Election Study). Indeed, it is remarkable how little has changed in the relationship between party identification and skin tone among Latinos given the two decades that separate these surveys. To put it most simply, there is no evidence of a net migration of light-skinned Latinos toward the Republican Party.
In both the 1990 and 2012 surveys, the Democratic Party has a sizable net advantage in party identification, even among lighter-skinned Latinos. This is a point that can be easily overlooked when we focus on the direction of the relationship between skin tone and partisanship, without paying attention to absolute levels of partisanship among lighter-skinned Latinos.
In addition to losing on party identification, Republicans have also lost on presidential vote choice among Latinos and Asian Americans, regardless of skin tone. Romney lost handily among lighter-skinned Latinos, so it is unlikely that boosting turnout among this select group would have significantly improved his prospects. Indeed, the same was true for McCain in 2008, as he lost to Obama among light-skinned Latinos and Asian Americans (Asian American results from the 2008 Collaborative Multiracial Postelection Survey (CMPS) shown here).
Of course, for Asian Americans in particular, skin tone is a disputable marker of racial difference, given that other physical markers have often been relied on, as in earlier Supreme Court cases that rejected light-skinned Asians as white and contemporary racial violence directed toward Asian Americans because of their perceived foreign-ness.
However, we do have information in surveys like the 2008 CMPS and the 2008 National Asian American Survey on personal experiences with racial discrimination. Experience with discrimination is important, not only because it can be viewed as a proxy for racial distinctiveness, but also because it is the most likely mechanism whereby perceptions of racial distinction matter for party identification. Even using this measure, however, we find that Republicans in 2008 lost even among those Asian Americans and Latinos who failed to report any experiences with racial discrimination.
Finally, if we move away from these cross-sectional analyses and consider instead variations in party support over time, the utility of skin tone as an explanatory factor diminishes even further. For example, Republican presidential candidates have experienced a steep drop in support among Latinos and Asian Americans in the past decade, and it is highly unlikely that this change is because either group is getting significantly “darker” over time. (In the Asian American case this is somewhat more plausible given the growing electoral share of Asian Indians, but in a forthcoming paper with Taeku Lee, we take account of changes in national origin and still find a big drop in Republican presidential support.)
Instead of looking for exotic explanations like skin tone to explain changes in minority political behavior over time, it would be more fruitful to look at more standard explanations such as political issues and campaign dynamics. Likely explanations include the restrictive turn among Republicans on immigration, particularly over the last decade, and Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act and other social welfare spending even as these measures enjoy significant support among Latinos and Asian Americans. As for campaign dynamics, plausible factors include the push and pull factors related to the historic nature of Obama’s presidency as a nonwhite candidate, and the racially charged backlash that sprang up among white conservatives in 2008 election and continued thereafter.
Indeed, this dynamic view of issue positions and party image points to the more plausible ways that Republicans can gain support among African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. These include taking steps such as consistently denouncing racially charged and anti-immigrant rhetoric by party affiliates; supporting more diverse Republican candidates for office; and figuring out ways to make policy appeals to new constituents without sacrificing too much of the party’s existing base of support. None of these tasks promises to be easy. However, without significant progress along these dimensions, it is unlikely that the Republican Party will make meaningful inroads among minority voters, light-skinned or otherwise.
Karthick Ramakrishnan is professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside.