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How the media describes Kamala Harris’s ethnicity doesn’t affect what voters think of her

Americans may have already formed their opinions about the two tickets and candidates

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala D. Harris speaks Thursday in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Since officially becoming the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has wasted no time in laying out the issues she plans to focus on.

Harris is the first Black American woman, first Asian American woman, and fourth woman of any race to appear on a major presidential ticket. She has spoken widely about racial justice and gender equality, suggesting that her various identities may be an important theme in the 2020 election campaign.

Not surprisingly, then, observers have been debating how to describe her identity, and whether different framings might affect voters’ attitudes. But in a new study, we find that the way the news media frames Harris’s race and gender may not really matter much in how voters view the Biden-Harris ticket.

Why the media’s framing of Kamala Harris’s identity could matter

There are several reasons to suspect that this framing choice is important. Harris is the daughter of an Indian immigrant mother and a Jamaican immigrant father. Though she was raised mostly by her mother, the news media has primarily identified Harris as a Black woman — an aspect of her identity that some argue will be crucial in mobilizing voters.

Others suggest that her Indian ancestry adds something unique, upending stereotypes about model minorities and paving the way for greater Asian representation in American politics. And some argue that her multiracial background may help her build coalitions of support across racial groups.

Harris herself subscribes to no single description when asked about her identity. She draws on various elements of her diverse background at different times and has often referred to herself as simply “an American.”

But some research suggests that how the media highlights different features of a politician’s identity could affect voters’ decisions. If one particular framing boosts support for the Biden-Harris ticket, this has important implications for liberal and conservative news outlets alike and potential consequences at the polls.

Will Kamala Harris's multiracial background help or hurt with voters?

The effects of media framing on attitudes toward Harris

To understand how the media’s framing of her race and gender could affect voters, we conducted a survey experiment on a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 Americans recruited through the survey firm Lucid on Aug. 18, soon after Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, selected Harris as his running mate. We had each respondent read a news article excerpt about Harris’s nomination, and randomly varied whether the headline described Harris as “a woman,” “a Black woman,” “an Asian woman,” or “a Black and Asian woman,” or ignored race and gender altogether.

We then asked whether they thought Harris was the right choice for Biden’s running mate; whether they supported President Trump; whether they thought Harris would be ready to serve as president if it became necessary; and whether Biden’s choice of Harris would help advance racial justice in the United States.

No evidence of race- or gender-based framing effects

Surprisingly, we found little evidence that how Harris was described could influence respondents’ perceptions. Compared to the headline that ignored race and gender altogether, none of the other headlines changed voters’ attitudes toward Biden’s choice, toward Trump, toward Harris’s ability to lead, or toward their belief that her candidacy could affect racial justice. Even when we looked for differences across party lines, gender or racial groups, we saw few systematic patterns.

Why? There are a few possible explanations. First, respondents may have already known Harris’s demographic attributes, given her own presidential run — and our headlines may have been too subtle to influence political attitudes. Second, Harris’s name alone may have prompted respondents to picture her race or gender; that would make it difficult to tell whether being reminded of those attributes affected attitudes, because even the “control” group already had them in mind.

But the more likely explanation is that emphasizing her race or gender truly won’t make any difference in mass political attitudes. Although Biden’s support has begun to tick up, both Biden and Trump have had relatively stable approval ratings throughout the campaign. That suggests that the media may have little room to change Americans’ views. In addition, national attitudes toward Trump are so incredibly polarized that it’s possible that very little could change people’s willingness to vote for or against him.

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What’s more, voters today may care more about a candidate’s policies than about their identities. Voters who already feel particularly positive or negative about Harris’s political record may not be swayed by different identity frames. Or perhaps these identity frames don’t matter for Harris as much as they did for Obama, the first biracial candidate in a presidential election.

Finally, we do not have enough survey data to examine attitudes from the two subgroups where identity frames might really matter: Black and Asian voters. The Biden-Harris campaign is directing attention these groups in particular. Will the framing make a difference to these groups?

Kamala Harris is likely to bring out Indian American voters

Nor can we report on whether having a biracial candidate on the November ballot will influence the election’s outcome. But our results suggest that news media concerns about how coverage presents her identity may be unnecessary and won’t affect whether the Biden-Harris ticket wins.

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Katherine Clayton is a PhD student in political science at Stanford University.

Charles D. Crabtree is an assistant professor in the department of government at Dartmouth College.

Yusaku Horiuchi is a professor of government and Mitsui Professor of Japanese Studies at Dartmouth College.