IU research shows voter engagement matters more than race of candidate
Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.
When a record number of black voters turned out for the presidential election in 2008, many people assumed it was because one of the candidates, Barack Obama, was black. That may have played a role, but new research from Indiana University shows a candidate’s race doesn’t necessarily mobilize minority voters.
Bernard Fraga, assistant professor of political science, found whether minorities make up the majority of voters in a district, and a candidate’s ability to successfully mobilize those minority voters, are better indicators of whether they will turn out for an election than the race of a candidate.
The findings of Fraga’s study were published online in February in the American Journal of Political Science and will be published in print this fall.
The article, “Candidates or Districts? Re-evaluating the Role of Race in Voter Turnout,” is the result of examining every congressional election in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Fraga said about 3,000 individuals sought office either in primary or general elections in that time.
Fraga chose to focus on congressional instead of presidential elections for several reasons, but a big part of the decision was salience. The thinking is that with less money spent on campaigns, less media attention and less knowledge of the issues specific to that race, other factors might weigh more heavily on voters’ minds.
“People are not going to pay as much attention, and they may focus more on race,” Fraga said.
He was able to determine the race of voters thanks to big-data companies. If you’re running a political campaign, you want as much information as possible about registered voters in your district, and you’re willing to pay for it. Data companies know this, so they do statistical modeling based on things such as last names and neighborhoods to come up with very accurate predictions of race, Fraga said.
What he found was that in districts with high minority populations but no minority candidates, minority voter turnout can still be relatively high. That is the result of candidates successfully mobilizing minority voters.
“Candidates do what it takes to win,” he said.
Fraga went into the study expecting the race of a candidate to be a major factor in minority voter turnout. His research doesn’t disprove that, but rather, shows there are several other factors that play a role.
For example, in the case of Obama, minority voter turnout was high. However, the gap between black and white voter turnout had been narrowing since the 1960s, Fraga said. And Hispanic and Asian voter turnout was higher as well.
“And he’s not that,” Fraga said.
Finally, Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012 were historic events because he was the first black president. Congress now has substantial minority representation, so a minority congressional candidate is no longer historic.
“My study only focused on recent elections, but if you look at the first time a Latino candidate or an Asian candidate ran, there might be a bigger jump,” he said. “But as a longer trend, this does not persist. Obama does not prove the rule, but he’s rather the exception.”
Fraga said the implications of his research are twofold. On one hand, it tells an optimistic kind of story that minority voters are responsive to candidates’ efforts to mobilize them to vote. But the downside is that if candidates don’t reach out to minority voters, turnout will be low, and they will be excluded from the voting process.
That’s especially discouraging because in a U.S. presidential election, typical voter turnout is between 50 and 60 percent, compared with an average of about 80 percent in democracies in Europe, Fraga said.
“Low minority voter turnout is just one small part of that puzzle,” he said. “We put a lot of value in our democracy. It’s important to get representation.”