Theme Panel: Race, Rhetoric, and Representation

Race, Rhetoric, and Representation

Co-sponsored by Division 32: Race, Ethnicity, and Politics
Full Paper Panel

(Chair) Andra Gillespie, Emory University; (Discussant) Christian R. Grose, University of Southern California; (Discussant) Bernard L. Fraga, Emory University

Session Description:
Racial and ethnic minorities have historically been underrepresented in the United States’ legislatures. This fact has led academics and pundits alike to argue that the country’s racioethnic minorities would benefit from more co-ethnic representatives, a stance that essentializes the choices of these voters and tends not to differentiate between the ideology and behaviors of the representatives themselves. Taking the heterogeneity of minority electorates and officials seriously, however, means engaging in the process of questioning, deconstructing, and extending seminal theories of race and ethnic politics in the United States. When is descriptive representation relevant in determining vote choice among racioethnic minority voters? How do politicians signal their commitments to their racioethnic group? Are some descriptive representatives preferable to others when it comes to the representation of racial and ethnic minorities’ interests and priorities?

This panel brings together five papers that employ novel approaches towards advancing and adding nuance to our understanding of the intersection of race, voting behavior, and elite behavior by focusing on Black voters and politicians. In his analysis of Black voters, Sparrow documents their joint preferences over ideological and descriptive representation, offering a new theoretical perspective on when and why race becomes relevant in the formation of preferences over candidates. Smith adds to this narrative and argues that Black voters are acutely aware of candidate viability and electability in early contests when voters are more likely to be strategic. How, then, do Black candidates respond to voters’ preferences for representatives? Wamble suggests that candidates’ capacity to signal their fitness is limited by innate characteristics. He shows that Black voters perceive female candidates as more committed to prioritizing the group’s interests once in office. Rendleman demonstrates that Black candidates are responsive to the composition of the electorate when deploying racialized rhetoric. Focusing on primaries, her work shows that the self-presentation of candidates is dependent on district and contest characteristics – which has implications for general election behavior and activities once in office. Finally, Stout, Mondragon, and Garcia look beyond the campaign and examine how elected officials’ online appeals to Black voters translate into the introduction of racially focused legislation. They show that racialized messaging is most predictive of Black officials’ legislative activities. Taken together, these papers offer new insights on when race matters to racioethnic minority voters, and the implications that has for the behavior of co-ethnic politicians.


The Limits of Racial Cues
Kevin Sparrow, Emory University

In primaries and other nonpartisan elections, voters must rely on identifiers other than party to select a candidate. I introduce the theory of bounded congruence to explain when a shared ethnic identity does and does not influence vote choice. According to this theory, black voters in majority-minority districts value co-racial representation over ideological congruence when choosing between white and black candidates. My original research design and survey allow me to test for voter preferences in both descriptive representation and political ideology. The results indicate that African American voters have a preference for descriptive representation, but it is not as universal as predicted. In some instances, black voters will support a white candidate who is more ideologically proximate to themselves, but when candidates present the same ideologies, black voters will support the co-racial candidate. These findings suggest that ideology plays a larger role in a voter’s electoral choice than previously expected.

Electability Politics: How and Why Black Americans Vote in Primary Elections
Jasmine Smith, Duke University

How do Black Americans make vote choice decisions in primary elections? This project investigates Black voting behavior within primary elections, as extant literature that focuses on the racial and partisan considerations that guide Black voting behavior omits an understanding of how Black Americans navigate this important step in the electoral process. In this project I suggest that Black Americans are highly strategic voters and vote for the candidate that is perceived to be the most electable. I then suggest that because strategic voting influences decision making in primary elections, Black voters often forego candidates that fulfill their desire for racially descriptive representation to elect a candidate that is, by their collective estimation, likely to defeat the Republican candidate in the general election. Through a series of observational and experimental tests, I show that Black voters rely on considerations about electability to guide vote choice in primary elections. This work has strong implications for under- standing Black voting behavior and the ways in which candidates can win the Black voting bloc in primary elections.

Too High a Bar?
Julian Wamble, George Washington University

Currently, descriptive representation literature lacks a mechanism that explains how Black voters perceive a candidate’s gender when assessing their preferability, and why it matters as some research has shown. Drawing on work that engages the relationship between social dynamics and Black political behavior, I argue that Black individuals’ expectations for Black women in social contexts influences their expectations for Black women politicians. Using an experimental test of approximately 4,200 Black people, I find that Black women candidates are perceived, by both Black women and men, as being more committed to prioritizing the group’s interests than Black men, which leads to more positive evaluations. These findings expand our understanding of descriptive representation by showing how the gendered dynamics within the Black community affect the pre-existing and strong preference that Black voters have for their representatives.

Race and Self-Presentation on the Campaign Trail
Hunter Rendleman, Harvard University

The classical literature in political science argues that candidates will strategically present and identify themselves with particular groups to win on election day. However, for more innate identities like race, gender, and sexuality, candidates that belong to traditionally minoritized groups seem to be disadvantaged in their capacity to converge to the identity-preferences of the median voter. In this paper, I introduce a novel dataset consisting of the web communications of over 600 Black Congressional candidates from 2006 to the present to show how race is deployed on the campaign trail. Using a within-candidate difference-in-differences design, I show that candidates use less explicitly racialized language when the electorate is likely to be whiter, more heterogeneous, and the risk of backlash higher. Not only do the findings of this paper extend our understanding on the campaign styles of racial minority candidates, but I also provide empirical support for spatial models of candidate behavior.

Put Your Money Where Your Posts Are
Christopher T. Stout, Oregon State University; Jennifer Garcia, Oberlin College; Karina Mondragon

In this study, we explore whether there is a link between members of Congress’ introduction of legislation around Black issues and the number of racial issues they post about in their official Twitter and Instagram pages. Given the audiences of the platforms which tend to be younger and more progressive, we suspect that most Democratic members will make appeals to African Americans on Twitter and Instagram. However, not all members of Congress will follow through with these appeals with legislative activity. Instead, we suspect that the link between these posts and actual representation in terms of introduction of legislation will be strongest among African American legislators. To test our hypothesis, we use the content analysis of over 200,000 Tweets along with over 10,000 posts for the first 6 months of the 117th Congress. We then connect this data to all bills introduced in the first 6 months of 2021. Ultimately, we find that while social media posts strongly predict the introduction of racially focused legislation, this relationship is strongest for Black members of Congress.

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