Party or race: which matters more when voters cast their ballots?

March 1, 2024 - Karessa Weir

Racial identity may play a huge role in political discourse but when it comes to the ballot box, MSU PLS research has found that racial minority candidates have the same chance of succeeding as majority white candidates. They may even have a slight advantage.

Eric Gonzales JuenkeDr. Eric Gonzales Juenke, Associate Professor of Political Science and Core Faculty in the Chicano/Latino Studies Program, recently published his research “Evaluating the Minority Candidate Penalty with a Regression Discontinuity Approach” in the British Journal of Political Science.

Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Juenke and co-investigators found that racial biases factor less often in minority candidate success than a candidate’s party affiliation. 

“The original puzzle was when Black, Latino and Asian Americans run for political office, do they face a penalty for not being white? For decades, the answer was yes,” Dr. Juenke said. “

In surveys and experiments, it was shown that there is a significant bias against minority politicians.  And you can see the apparent results of that because there are not a lot of Black, Latino or Asian American elected officeholders outside of majority-minority districts. Putting the experimental results together with where people hold office led to the conclusion that racial and ethnic minorities could not win office in white districts

However, when you look at actual election returns, voters rarely got to choose Black, Latino or Asian American candidates on their ballots. Usually voters are given a choice between two white candidates. So we discovered that parties were not giving voters the choices that were showing up in the experiments, Dr. Juenke said. 

“So we asked what happens when we code the candidates by the gender, race and ethnicities as presented by them in websites and interviews, and look at the actual candidate choices the parties were giving voters, and we found that voters are just as likely to choose a minority candidate as the white male counterparts,” he said. 

In previous work, Juenke and his co-authors studied tens of thousands of state legislative races. In this study, they focus on about 400 state legislative elections where a white candidate narrowly defeated or was narrowly defeated by a candidate of color, the authors determined that in the real world, voters rely more on party when selecting a candidate who they think reflects their views. 

“So a conservative voter is more likely to vote for Black Republican than a white male Democrat,” Dr. Juenke said. “That doesn’t mean they are not biased but it does mean that being a racial minority is not overwhelming Party.”

In fact, Dr. Juenke has found that there might even be a slight advantage to being a racial minority candidate, a fact which he finds exciting and will likely lead to future research. 

“There might actually be a little benefit for racial/ethnic minority candidates within their own party,” he said. “We are not saying race doesn’t matter, and this is key, but party affiliation is more responsible for voters when selecting the candidates. In the last 10 years we’ve seen parties recruit more women and candidates of color leading to the biggest growth of representation.”

However, Democrats have historically put forth greater efforts to recruit minority candidates, including gender minorities. That can be seen in the fact that 40 percent of elected Democrats  are women while only 20 percent of Republicans are women. 

That gap is even larger when it comes to racial minorities. But Dr. Juenke said that is changing. 

“Republicans have been recruiting Black and Latino candidates nationally,” he said, citing U.S. Rep. John James as a good example. James, a Black Republican, lost races for the U.S. Senate to Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018 and Sen. Gary Peters in 2020 but received national attention for his candidacy. He was elected to Congress in 2022.

“He was recruited and supported to hopefully make inroads with Black voters especially with Black voters in the Detroit area, but his support is overwhelmingly from GOP voters” Dr. Juenke said. 

In addition to this paper, Dr. Juenke is working on a book that is expected to be complete this summer and published in 2025. 

Along with Dr. Juenke, co-authors of this article include Drs. Ariel White (MIT), Paru Shah (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Bernand L. Fraga (Emory).