Attacking Democrats on race
In 2016, the Trump campaign and Russian troll farms highlighted Hillary Clinton’s past comments about crime and her husband’s support for the 1994 crime bill in an effort to get black voters to question whether they should support her campaign. While few expected that Trump would win over these disaffected voters, that wasn’t necessary; all his campaign had to do was discourage blacks from voting, as it explicitly aimed to do. Many expect Biden to face similar attacks in the coming months.
Our research shows that attacks like the ones Clinton faced in 2016, and the ones Biden is likely to face in 2020, do effectively depress black voter turnout — because some of them begin to believe the maligned politician doesn’t care about them. Since getting people of color to the polls will be critical for helping Biden win several swing states, such attacks on Biden’s record could hurt him — despite his service as Barack Obama’s vice president.
So how can Democrats neutralize such attacks? Our research finds that happens when parties nominate people of color for elected office. Even when parties are labeled as being racially insensitive, if a party runs a candidate of color, African Americans are more likely to discount these claims as baseless.
How we did our research
We commissioned a nationally representative experiment through Yougov. In all, 1,500 respondents completed our study, which included questions to determine respondents’ preferred political party. Respondents then read a hypothetical newspaper article that either argued that most or few elected officials within their preferred party were racially prejudiced. Respondents then read a voter guide that randomly presented them with either a white candidate, a black candidate or a Latinx candidate.
Because we anticipated that voters would respond differently to white candidates and candidates of color, we combined those who received either the Latinx or black candidate into a single category.
We then asked respondents how likely they would be to vote in the 2020 presidential election. Respondents were given a seven-point scale to respond to, with options ranging from 1 for “Extremely Unlikely” to 7 for “Extremely Likely.”
Accusations of party racism discourage blacks from voting … unless countered with diversity within the party
We find that claims of high levels of racism within a black voter’s preferred party — which, for roughly 85 percent, was Democratic — coupled with information about a white candidate reduced their intention to vote in that election — bringing it down by 1.28 points on the seven-point scale than for blacks who read that few in their party had racist attitudes and also read about a white candidate. In other words, painting political elites as racially insensitive when the candidate is white reduces at least the intention to vote — and probably voting itself.
But blacks who read that their party had many racially biased politicians, and then read about a black or Latinx candidate, were statistically no less likely to say they were enthusiastic about voting than blacks who were told their party had few racist politicians and read about the black or Latinx candidate. This suggests that while attacks on a party’s racial politics can suppress black turnout, running candidates of color can counteract that attack. Showing, in other words, beats telling.
We found no evidence that allegations that one’s party is racist influenced white or Latinx intentions to vote, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, and no matter which candidate profile they read. In other words, nominating a person of color is unlikely to discourage them from voting.
What might this mean for Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick?
Our results suggest that nominating a person of color can help counteract allegations that candidates like Joe Biden don’t care about African Americans. Biden may be insulated from such attacks, given his association with Obama — but that might not be enough.
As a result, if Biden were to select a running mate such as Stacy Abrams, Val Demings, Kamala Harris, or Catherine Cortez Masto, he could show his empathy and concern for people of color, along with a strong commitment to represent them while in office. And that could neutralize attacks on his racial record while keeping African Americans enthusiastic about his candidacy.
Keith Baker is associate professor in the department of public administration at SUNY Brockport.