As the U.S. diversifies, political representation is not keeping pace. But that doesn’t mean we can blame the voters. Black and Hispanic candidates do win elections when they run and generate support from their parties. In fact, it could be that apprehension about how voters would react is what is holding back political representation. Eric Gonzalez Juenke finds that non-white candidates that barely win primary elections over white candidates do at least as well in general elections as white candidates who barely win—if not even better. Minority candidates can win, in either party and even in districts without large minority populations. 

Guest: Eric Gonzalez Juenke, Michigan State University

Study: “Evaluating the Minority Candidate Penalty with a Regression Discontinuity Approach


Matt Grossmann: Racial minority candidates win elections this week on the Science of Politics. For the The Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. As the U.S. diversifies, political representation is not keeping pace, but that doesn’t mean we can blame the voters. Black and Hispanic candidates and those from other racial and ethnic minorities do win elections when they run and generate support from their parties. In fact, it could be that apprehension about how the voters would react is actually what’s holding back political representation. This week, I talked to my Michigan State University colleague, Eric Gonzalez Juenke about the pipeline and success of racial and ethnic minority candidates.

His new paper with Arial White, Paru Shah and Bernard Fraga, Evaluating the Minority Candidate Penalty with a Regression Discontinuity Approach finds that non-white candidates that barely win primary elections over white candidates do at least as well in general elections as white candidates who barely win, if not even better. This matches a lot of prior research showing that racial minority candidates can win in either party and even in districts without large minority populations. That doesn’t mean racist voters are a myth. Racial views might not be enough to overcome baseline partisanship or candidates might be able to rely on other voters that prefer minority candidates. Here’s our conversation. So let’s start with a summary of the new article. You are looking at minority candidates and state legislative elections, surprisingly finding that they just do just as well. So what are the big findings? How did you reach that conclusion, and what should we take away from it?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: Yeah, thanks for having me on. We’re interested in a really basic question, why do our elected legislative bodies, whether our local, state or federal, often not look like the populations they represent? So this is the general question everybody in this area is working on. There’s a lot of ways to try and help answer this question. We’re going to get into some of them, I think, in this conversation, but in this paper, we try to provide one part of that answer that we have been working on for more than a decade. We wanted to know, what is the general election effect of nominating a candidate of color after a close primary elections involving a white candidate? We focus on state legislative districts to answer this question because there’s thousands and thousands of candidates who run every two years, and in fact, every year for state legislative office compared to the hundreds who run for Congress every two years. So we get to compare many more districts and candidates in political context than Congress.

So the focus on state legislative districts is important because the state’s vary, of course, in their institutions, but also, just because on an empirical side for leverage. So we not only have more candidates of color in our data, but we have more variation in their electoral context, which gives us leverage on the kinds of rare event that is a contested election with a white candidate and candidate of color in a primary. So in this paper, we use a technique regression discontinuity design that has not been used before to look at racial and ethnic descriptive representation. It provides some of the strongest evidence to date that we need to shift our thinking about the viability of racial and ethnic minority candidates in partisan elections in the U.S. context. We find that candidates of color are not less likely to win compared to white candidates, although sequel and that finding on its own is pretty remarkable given the lengths we go to make this test as close to as fair as possible as we can with non-experimental data.

What’s more, and probably more fascinating is that we find some evidence that candidates of color in our data set were a little more likely to win than their white counterparts. So understanding why that might be the case of trying to explain that result is really interesting and it’s important and fits in with some newer work that we can talk about. Then finally, I guess I hope the takeaways for non-political scientists, and by that I mean party operatives, funders, voters who are thinking strategically about funding candidates and ambitious candidates themselves. If you’re a candidate of color or a woman of color, don’t buy into the idea that you can’t win. You should run. Don’t listen to party operatives, Republican or Democrat, who tell you that racially prejudice or racist voters won’t support you. You should run. You can win. Your journey’s going to be a little different, it might be very different and more difficult than others, but you are as likely to win or lose as other people in your party.

Matt Grossmann: So talk about how your paper differs from just looking at all the minority candidates and all the white candidates and looking at who does better in general elections and give us, I guess, the intuition for why this regression discontinuity case might help us get to some causal inferences.

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: So yeah, I want to be really careful ’cause in talking about this, you can say the wrong thing about the method that we’re using and describe it incorrectly. So I’m going to give you the wrong way to think about this, like technically incorrect way. But I think for the layperson, this is probably the easiest way to think about this. So we look at contested primaries with a white candidate and then a racial ethnic minority candidate in the primary. Then we looked for those races, so we include all of those competitive primaries and then the general election contests that come after those primaries in the data set for 2018 and 2020. But as those races, those primary races get closer and closer, you get to something that, and here’s where I’m going to describe it incorrectly technically, but you get to something that looks like a coin flip.

My co-authors are going to get really mad at me, so it’s not that. So I just want to make sure that people understand it’s not an experimental random treatment effect, but it is something in observational work where you can say in those races where it’s really close, where either a minority candidate or a white candidate just barely wins by a razor-thin margin. You get to a space where you can try and you’ve hopefully averaged out any of the unknown things that we tend to try and control for in these elections. So in many ways, with observational data, this is the toughest test to pass for our results. Now, thankfully, this matches a lot of the research that we’ve been working on for the last 10 years, but regression discontinuity design gives just another type of evidence and much stronger evidence that what we’re finding is consistent with past work that we’ve done.

Matt Grossmann: So talk a little bit about that. So if we just looked at all minority candidates and all white candidates, would they be as equally likely to win general elections? Would they do as well in terms of vote share? How does the subset that you’re now taking a look at with these contested primaries differ from that broader pool?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: Sure. So we’ve looked at all of these races at the state legislative level in our past work. For those who don’t know, there’s roughly about 14, 15,000 people who run for office at the state legislative level over two years in these data sets. So we’ve used some of those large full data sets to ask these questions in the past and try and answer them. We use the traditional kind of methods of controlling for incumbency, controlling for contested general election races, controlling for district population and partisanship. In doing so, you’re trying to find out, okay, so let’s compare apples to apples here. Let’s compare how racial and ethnic minority candidates do and compare to white candidates and let’s control for all these things that might differ across those contexts. So what we found in those is the same thing that we found here that we really find no disadvantage to parties nominating candidates of color, racial ethnic minority candidates, Black candidates, Latinx candidates in these state legislative races.

We’ve hit it with almost everything we could think of in the past research, past published research. But what we were never able to do is to get the amount of leverage that we get in this paper where we really focus on these cases where it’s incredibly close in the primary and somebody barely wins, somebody barely loses. We compare those barely winning white candidates to those barely winning racial ethnic minority candidates. Again, I’m giving the layperson’s understanding of this, but the idea is that if for an act of God or reign or something, the other candidate may have won. A few more voters turn out and the other candidate may have won. So we’re taking those candidates then and seeing how they do. So the real question is, are parties penalized for nominating candidates of color in the general election? Again, we find results that are very consistent with our past work that that’s not the case.

Matt Grossmann: So if you just looked at all the candidates you would find minority candidates would win at just as high levels if you looked at them and you’ve tried to do all these observational controls versus this method, you’re really getting a similar answer.

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: That’s right. That’s right.

Matt Grossmann: So that opens the question as to why. We certainly know that there are some prejudiced voters and that racial prejudices and other racial attitudes can impact vote choices. So how is it that that doesn’t result in an aggregate in a minority candidate disadvantage?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: Yeah. So this is really the super interesting part of it for me, and I think for my co-authors as well is, what explains this? Because as you say, we do know that there are a lot of racially bigoted voters out there, whether they have some kind of racial prejudice or whether they’re racist, they want policies to be differentiated by race. They think there’s biological differences between people of different ethnicities and different races. So we know that that’s true, and we have a lot of evidence for that, and we’re not saying that that’s not true. We have experimental evidence that shows that it’s exactly these kind of voters who are more likely to say they aren’t going to support a candidate of color or in the gender literature, a woman candidate if they have sexist views.

So we have this kind of survey evidence suggesting that there’s racial bias in the voting public, particularly for white voters, and that we have this experimental evidence that suggests that even when given the choice between different kinds of candidates, that these voters will actually express their racial bigotry in a way that disadvantages minority candidates. Then we have this long literature of observational work looking at office holders, finding that minority candidates were very rare in white districts. That evidence was used in court cases to decide redistricting fights in the past. The social science was used in the Supreme Court in a number of cases to demonstrate the need for certain type of districting regimes. So we have this what I call the three-legged stool of the survey evidence, the experimental evidence, the observational evidence, and we’re taking on the observational work.

I can explain how we do that. But the other two legs of the stool have also taken some hits recently in the last 10 years. The experimental work, of course, and this taps into my love of philosophy of science that the experimental work, of course, is done in a vacuum. It’s not controlling for external factors, and so it has external validity issues associated with it. So what might work in a lab may not work in the real world of a campaign where voters have more information about the candidates. It can substitute other information about the candidates for their racial biases. This is, for me, one of the most interesting things that’s come of this work, the survey work showing that voters are using their racial biases to make choices, there’s been some pushback.

It’s not that those racial bigots or racists, I’m using different terminologies and they’re measured a little bit differently, but generally speaking, we’re talking about the same general population that a lot of those findings are giving the agency to racists or bigots. But on the other side of these measures of racial bias or racial prejudice are these people who are considered not racist or don’t have racial biases. There’s this great paper [inaudible 00:13:46] et al., in I think it’s the Political Science Quarterly, it came out in February, but they show that on the other side of this curve, there’s these people who actually are fairly racially liberal, these are white voters who prefer candidates of color in some instances, all else equal.

It’s interesting how those individuals might balance each other out in certain circumstances. In the voting public, there’s also worked by Jen Chudy and Spencer Piston and others showing that they look at racial sympathizers. These are people who, for a variety of reasons, also prefer candidates of color. Then there’s also work by Christou showing that some candidates in certain situations can actually push their identity forward and voters will really respond to that. White voters will respond to that and favor that. So it’s this kind of favoring that might be accounting or might make up some of that gap for those voters who might disfavor. There’s also other reasons the parties have certainly polarized along the racial dimension over the last 50 years, but certainly, it’s accelerated over the last 10, 15 years.

And because of that, a lot of people who would use their racial biases, or people who are, say, racially liberal, have found the party that matches those preferences, and so they can then vote for their party instead of their biases.

And then for the most part in partisan elections, it really comes down to… And this is one of the benefits, I think. I shouldn’t say benefits, but one of the potential positive outcomes of polarization is because the partisan becomes so polarized, people really do care about what somebody stands for rather than who they are. If they’re going to lead the team, if they’re going to be the standard-bearer for their team, people will override some of their racial biases and support that Republican or Democrat, even if they may have some prejudice against them.

And so in a lot of those experiments in the past, at least, you would leave out party because what would happen is you add party, it would actually dominate the findings, because people then would revert to their partisan cues. So we think, or I think, that a lot of these things might be contributing to some of the findings that we have here.

Matt Grossmann: So you are comparing racial and ethnic-minority candidates to white candidates, but I imagine because of the population of candidates, that is mostly meaning Black and Hispanic candidates and mostly meaning Democratic candidates. So what can we say about variation? Do these findings extend to Asian American, Native American candidates? Do they extend to Republican non-white candidates?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: Yeah, so that’s a great question, and I think for some of these, the answer is we need to figure that out. So we’re not able to disentangle the first part of that in this paper because as you say, most of these candidates are Black or Latino or Latina. And so it’s really rare to find these truly competitive situations in the first place, and to find it with groups who are geographically isolated in certain states are rare events in some of these models.

And that’s part of what the problem is here: there’s a lack of support and a lack of recruitment of candidates from some of these different groups, and we think that if the parties would do a better job of increasing their recruitment efforts, you would actually get more representation from some of these groups.

So we’re not able to disentangle that here, but there is other work… But we do find it’s pretty common across the groups that we do have in here, and we don’t find any differences in this paper and in our other papers where we do have more of those candidates: Asian American candidates, Native American candidates. We don’t find any differences in those larger papers. Christian-

Matt Grossmann: And similarly for party, so the minority Republicans also do just as well?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: That is true. We don’t find any differences across party on this paper. But as you say, the Democratic Party has done historically a better job of recruiting and supporting candidates of color and women candidates, and so that’s where most of the variation is here. But we don’t find any differences across the parties in this paper, and not in our other papers either.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences, and so where we do see the differences, and other research has shown, is that there’s differences in recruitment and support, and there’s a lot of really good work being done in that area. I was going to say, Christian Dyogi Phillips and others have worked looking at the intersection of race and gender and immigrant background, and I think that work is really important as we try to dig down and see how generalizable these findings are across all type of groups.

Matt Grossmann: So as you say, this matches some of the findings from the gender literature, where people find that women candidates do just as well in general elections. One of the pushbacks to that has been that we’re observing the women candidates who are best positioned to counteract prejudices, and so that could be true of your candidates as well: that these are folks that are well positioned to win support from white voters. And they still face prejudices. Maybe they’re seen as more liberal; maybe they’re seen as more focused on racial-minority voter concerns.

So give us a little bit of, I guess, your reaction to that overall, and then maybe if you have some stories of these particular candidates. Are there ones that really do seem to just be good at appealing to white voters, or is this something where just, if we saw more candidates running, no matter what their strategy, they would have the same outcome?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: Yeah, and I just want to make sure that the context of all of this… And the easiest way to say this is really these candidates are running under the party labels, and so they’re running as standard-bearers for their party, and that’s really what’s dominating their presentation to voters, in voters’ minds. And so that’s really the big thing driving, I think, these findings and driving how voters are thinking about their candidates as the campaign goes on. Is this person going to help defeat the other party, and is this person going to represent the partisan views that I have?

But that is to say also that all candidates have to act strategically. So you’re suggesting there’s some strategic ambition here, and that’s true, but it’s also true for all candidates. Most successful candidates are strategic about the races that they’re going to pick.

Now, here we have another racial dimension, about: is this the right district for me to run in? And there is a lot of evidence that racial and ethnic-minority candidates and women candidates have to alter their messages and often appearance to push back against these prejudices, particularly for many white voters and men voters.

So for example, you have somebody like Raphael Warnock presenting himself with puppies in his campaign ads to perhaps counter some people’s perceptions of him as radical. You have Joni Ernst castrating hogs in her ads, famously, to demonstrate what might be perceived as masculine traits, which research is shown is needed by many women in Canada. That’s particularly in the GOP. And some of my early work looked at ways in which Latino candidates in Colorado had to de-racialize their campaigns to win white support.

And so yes, I think that all that research is helpful in understanding how we might get results like the ones that we find. And it’s not that all of these candidates are similar and have to do the same amount of work to win an election; it’s that this work to reassure prejudiced voters can work and it can lead to success.

But as I said, there’s more to this story now, and the work that I talked about earlier from Chris [inaudible 00:22:11], Michael Tesler and many others show us that in some areas, there are preferences for candidates as they are; that there’s many white voters who actually would prefer to take candidates as they are, whether they’re women candidates, racial and ethnic-minority candidates, and there’s an advantage to being authentic to themselves and their identities.

And so there are races and there are elections where candidates have to strategically appeal to voters, but again, if you think about what those areas are, we’re talking about these areas where you have to do this and have to not, there’s going to be Democratic areas, largely, and in Republican areas, the candidates have to appeal to Republican voters. And so to the extent that they have to strategically sell those messages in those partisan races, and again, in this very polarized time period that we’re in, that’s what’s going to override a lot of people’s personal prejudices in these races.

Matt Grossmann: So one explanation that I know you’ve looked at a lot for why we wouldn’t get as many minority candidates given that they would do well in a general election is that they don’t get support from party officials or current office-holders as much. How much can we say… I know we’re traveling outside of this paper specifically, but I know you’re an expert on this as well. How much can we say that that is about skepticism of general-election voters, where if they were really convinced by this paper they would move forward, versus there are just other dynamics in the minority-candidate pipeline that lead to lack of party and current office-holder support?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: I think it’s huge. For me, speaking for myself, I think that that is probably the number-one gap in the pipeline, and there could be a variety of reasons for this. It could be that these gatekeepers, party operatives, funders have their own prejudices and they literally think, “Well, I just don’t want to support these candidates.”

It could be that they’re being strategically prejudiced; that they don’t think that these kind of… And there’s a really great book on this, Small Power by Dave Doherty, I think it’s Doherty, Dowling and Miller, where they actually, they run experiments on these county party chairs, and they find that in fact, that’s right: that these county party chairs are being strategically prejudiced at times and suggesting that, “Well, we don’t think you can win in this area, and therefore, we can’t really support you and we’re not going to go looking for candidates who look like you to run in these districts or these cities.”

And so it’s already, as you know, an incredibly difficult decision to drop your life and run for office. It’s disruptive to everything that you’ve been doing. So even the most ambitious individuals often choose not to run for office. And so you can imagine if you take that step into the pool and somebody’s there to say, “We just don’t think you’re the right fit for this election,” or, “We don’t think you’re the right fit for this office,” that’s pretty debilitating to your ambitions.

I have an anonymous story. You hear anecdotes all the time, and there is a very prominent governor who was told that they shouldn’t bother running, because as a woman, they just weren’t going to perform well. And thankfully, they decided not to take that advice. I hope more candidates make that decision too, to not take that advice. But those are the little nudges that I think keep the pipeline looking the way it has for as long as it has.

The other part of this is it could be that voters are strategically… “I don’t have any problem supporting these candidates, but I don’t think other people in my party will, and therefore, I can’t get behind this candidate. It’s too bad.” And they may really believe that. And so I think those are the kind of strategic prejudice that can be overcome by candidates winning, breaking through, seeing that this can be done and voters will support them. There’s this collective-action problem that pops up strategically.

And then we have a paper on the elite side of this showing that there is a coattail effect for higher-office racial and ethnic-minority candidates: that when they win, if their district has crossover with state legislative districts, we tend to see more co-ethnic racial candidates emerging in those districts that have overlap. So there’s this idea that when somebody breaks through at the federal level or at a higher level of office or governorship, that other ambitious candidates who are out there say, “Okay, it can be done,” or they tap into the network of donors and party supporters that were tied to this higher-level office-holder.

So I think a lot of these different things might be at play, and as you know, again, it’s a really hard thing to do to run for office, and so any one of these could tip people out of the pipeline.

Matt Grossmann:

So the easy metric that party officials often use is just: how many minority voters are there in the district? That could result in you only seeing minority candidates in districts with high minority populations. Do you look at that at all? Not the compensating differential, but just that these districts where the minority candidate wins the primary have a certain level of minority support.

Eric Gonzalez Juenke:

Sure, and that’s true: historically true, and that’s true in the present. In fact, you still see a large majority of racial and ethnic-minority office-holders and candidates emerging in these districts that have a large minority population in them. In some ways, personally, normatively, I really hope we can encourage more people in both parties to start running outside of these areas. Because when we do look at these areas where we look at majority-white districts in our previous work, that’s not in this paper, but in previous work, we find the same effect. We find that in those cases where they do run, they do just as well as their white partisan counterparts.

We keep coming into this question. Everybody, historically, whether they’re party gatekeepers or whether they’re candidates or voters, is looking at that relationship, that correlation between district demographics and who is holding office and they say, “Well, this is just how it is. This is just a law.” And we’re trying to suggest that in fact, it’s not a law. It’s not true. It just happens to be that everybody has this self-fulfilling prophecy, that if this is how the world works, then this is how we’re going to make it work. And we show that that’s just not true.

Matt Grossmann: So that would seem to have implications for a lot of voting rights issues surrounding redistricting, where minority representative organizations often make exactly these arguments, that they need to have districts with large racial minority populations in order to get racial minority representation.

On the one hand, your work might be cited by people who say, “No, that’s not really necessary.” On the other hand, all this self-fulfilling prophecy that we are talking about might mean that it still turns out that way, that you need these high racial minority populations to get the candidates to match their districts.

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: Yeah, I think those are, so again, I’ll answer this in my own way. I’m not speaking for my co-authors, but I think these are different questions and I think conflating these two things is what has in part contributed to some of the problems in the past.

So, it’s true that majority minority districting has contributed to more minority descriptive and substantive representation. And that’s the other part of this. I think oftentimes proponents in majority, minority districting are suggesting there’s these other effects, substantive representation, not just descriptive representation. You’re getting different kinds of co-ethnic or co-racial representatives. And in previous work that I’ve done and others have done saw that that’s true. You actually do get, and it’s not just about who the representative is, but it’s what those districts and their coalitions look like no matter who’s representing them.

If there’s a majority Black population or majority Latino population, then they can put more pressure on whoever’s representing them in office and get better substantive representation for that group. But I think we’ve often thought of this as some kind of trade off, and whether it’s because of all the things that we’ve talked about, past white voter prejudice, elites not recruiting candidates, feeling like they can’t win, networks of political insiders, and more importantly, creating a powerful geographic political block that no matter who represents and can influence that representative, I just want to be clear that it’s bigger and more complicated than just who is going to, can candidates win in white districts. And that’s that smaller part of this that we’re asking.

Now, having said all that, if we focus on just who runs and who wins, our evidence suggests that you don’t necessarily need a majority or even a large influence district to elect candidates of color in these state legislative races. And again, we’re talking about partisan races in state legislature if they’re recruited and supported to run. And I think, as you say, that’s a big if.

So, if the explanation is you actually need these influence districts in order to create the donor class, in order to create the party support, in order to put pressure on the parties themselves to encourage candidates to run, then it would be the case that those things are needed. And again, I think those majority minority are districts are useful in other ways besides just electing descriptive representatives.

Matt Grossmann: So, tell us a little bit more about these pipeline issues that I know that we’ve studied. So, we have talked about that it isn’t general election voters that are responsible for lower levels of representation, and it probably has something to do with party elites, current office holders, interest groups, support for racial minority candidates. It might have to do with the racial minority candidates themselves, anticipation of prejudice, maybe even primary voters’ anticipation of prejudice. But there’s probably a long tail of factors that matter in this process.

So, talk a little bit about the broader reasons why we might not see racial minority candidates to match racial minority population in the US.

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: So, it’s interesting to say the long tail, because I think that’s a big part of this. History is sticky, as I teach my students. And incumbency is a strong part of this story historically. There just aren’t as many opportunities for individuals to break through as there… We don’t start with a clean slate every two years. And so when these opportunities do come up, it’s incredibly competitive and in partisan competitive districts where you could actually have a Republican or Democrat win, there are high stakes. And I think these party elites can really try and find candidates that they in their minds believe can win particular kinds of districts. And they have this kind of idea. Party operatives are also part of the historical inertia. They themselves have been doing this for a while.

So, I do think there’s a lot of historical stickiness. And I think that is also why we’ve seen a change in the last 10 years and we’ve seen increased diversity of candidates. We’ve seen increased diversity in office holders. In some states, we’ve reached parity, particularly for African American representation in some states. We don’t have the underrepresentation that we have in other states. And this is really, I think a big part of this is partly what was show in this paper, but also partly because racial minority candidates and women candidates themselves figured out a way, either through the party or outside of the party with these kind of outside training organizations, party networks that are secondary to the party to, Stacey Abrams is a really great example of this, but candidates who found ways to work around these other gatekeepers and find ways to get on the ballot and they’ve been successful.

I think the kind of nationalization of our politics has helped. I think polarization has helped. And I also think that social media campaign, we can go directly to vote keepers. We see voters, we see gatekeepers in every industry kind of fall to the wayside with the rise of social media. And it’s not surprising that part of gatekeepers are also being kind of shunned if a candidate is ambitious enough and feels that they can compete. I think AOC is a great example of this when she wins her first race. And we have lots of examples of similar candidates across the country.

Matt Grossmann: So, give us a little bit about the state of representation. I know for women it’s just an easier baseline because we know that women are 50% or near 50% of most districts and states, and we can see that they’re not 50% of representatives, but that they’re increasing in their representation and there are some states where they’re a majority of representatives in some chambers. Does the racial minority representation story look similar?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: It does in some states. And again, yeah, it varies. And this does kind of fit the gender story as well where you have, for women, states like Colorado and New Mexico where you have parity or near parity. And so you do have some state legislatures for racial ethnic minority candidates where you do have parity, particularly for Black representation. And that this translates into real policy wins.

These are not just kind of symbolic representatives, symbolic descriptor representatives. We see Beth Reingold has research on this and what it translates into for women and for Black women. So, minority representation matters both in addition to party representation and separately in its own dimension. But it matters to the issues that the parties are focusing on and what kind of stances they’re taking. So we have seen a growth in the number of candidates from different groups who are running and we have seen continued success.

We have a paper from a couple years ago showing that we have seen a rise in the number of candidates of color and women of color running in state legislatures. And over time, and this is in both parties, so I should say that the Democrats are doing and have historically done more to recruit and support women and women of color and candidates of color for office. And so the Democratic office holder and candidate pool looks incredibly diverse and looks pretty close to what we see in the United States overall. But the Republicans are doing more recently, doing a little bit more to diversify their candidate recruitment practices and support. And we see that here in Michigan and we see that across the country as well.

So, let’s try to square your findings with what’s happening in presidential elections. Many people will see it through that lens. There is a case that maybe some of the research on Obama supports your story. There are some findings that racial prejudice hurt Obama. There are some others that say that there were some voters that were more inclined to support Obama, so maybe there was some compensation from the racial left in those elections.

Matt Grossmann: On the other hand, we see a lot of consternation about nominating women and minority candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Many people credit that consternation in part for Joe Biden’s win last time. So, I guess are people’s inclinations right about what happened under Obama and what’s happening at the presidential level and how much should we draw from your findings to connect it to those?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: Yeah, so, this is one of my favorite topics to talk about, and it’s a bit of a controversial area, so I’m going to be careful. So, first, it’s possible that things are different for executives, say for governors, for presidents and also for federal elections than it is obviously we’re looking at state legislative elections, they’re not as salient, voters don’t have as much information about the candidates. Although again, social media’s really made candidate campaigning a lot more personal and voters can get more information than they had in the past.

But the Obama case is such a good example of, I think this whole debate. Because as you say, there was a lot of research that came out after his election suggesting that if not for the economy tanking, he would not have won, that he really got lucky that the economy tanked, I think it was a month before the election. But people forget how much racism he faced in his campaign. And I think that’s kind of striking because we’re all old enough to have lived through it. There’s the Reverend Wright inferences, to the anti-Muslim racism he faced, to his name being used as a weapon. People remember the quote, unquote “terrorist fist bump” accusations.

So there’s like very big part of the campaign was to try and paint him and racialize him as we think about it in the literature. And he had to work harder than other white Democrats to win over racist voters in his own party in the Democratic Party and then in the general election. And people say, “Well, he just had to be a better candidate than a typical Democratic candidate.” Again, I think it’s such a great lesson, he beat Hillary Clinton, who was an incredibly strong primary opponent. And John Edwards, people forget John Edwards was also a really strong primary candidate opponent in that race as well.

So then say, “Well, he was just a really great candidate and that’s why he was able to do this.” So, this fits the story of, well, the only candidates who are able to pull this off are these kind of super talented candidates like Obama. But in the way that political science measures experience or viability or candidate quality, he was, again, this is before an election, before we see these things, whether it’s incumbency or party support or money or previous held office, he was one of the most inexperienced major party presidential candidates in decades. But after he wins, I think there’s this story that, well, he must have won because he’s just this generational candidate.

So, what we do is tell these, we try and say, okay, well, then let’s look at other candidates. I can talk about some of that. What new research has found, and again, I want to kind of go back to that [inaudible 00:43:27] paper to show that he really did, to the extent that he faced and was punished by racially conservative or racist voters, many of those voters were not going to support a Democratic candidate anyway. Many of those voters in his own party went ahead and pulled the lever for him. And there were other voters who really wanted him to win because he would be the first Black candidate in US history.

They wanted to support, they favored him more than they favored Hillary Clinton or John Edwards or a John Kerry type. And so, in those same studies, and this is what I find so interesting, in those very same studies showing that he was punished by bigots, you can look at the evidence in those studies and find the other side of that, that actually there’s support from what we would call racial liberals or racial sympathizers who really liked him and liked him more than the other candidates and gave him extra support.

So, what we do with these studies is we say, well, we want to go beyond these kind of anecdotal cases. So, even though I think this fits, his story fits well with our story. And the other thing I should point out is political scientists before each presidential elections publish their expectations about how the presidential election’s going to turn out. And if you go back to that 2008 October issue where the political scientists published their models before the election.

They nailed that election. They got it almost exactly right in terms of the candidates’ level support, McCain and Obama. These are models that are done well before the economy crashes. These are done using totally different inputs than polling and other things like that. I just find it interesting that he did as well as political scientists thought he would do, if you average those studies out.

Then if you look at other candidates, I mean, you don’t have to just look at Obama. You can look at a Republican like Tim Scott from South Carolina; Marco Rubio, of course, in Florida; Ted Cruz in Texas. Again, individuals who, yes, racial, ethnic, minority candidates, but they’re running as Republicans in Texas. They’re running as Republicans in South Carolina. They’re running as Democrats in Illinois and in Michigan. If they’re running for the right party label, these many of these voters are going to override their biases.

Matt Grossmann: How much has your group actually tried to reach out to candidates and recruitment organizations and parties, and what reactions do you get? Do they have the same objections to your findings as social scientists do, or do they have another series of explanations or resistance?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: No. To the extent that I’ve talked to organizations that try and recruit, fund, and train candidates of color, and women and women of color, to run for office. That’s where a lot of these anecdotes come from; where they say, “Yep, that’s what we heard. This is what from funders, this is what we heard from party gatekeepers.” It is as if we’re telling their story, and we are telling that story, and I think there’s a little bit of relief that that story is getting told.

Of course, I’m talking to people who want to run for office and want to win office, and so this matches, really, this more optimistic take on viability and their chances for their ambitions. But it does really fit with what a lot of these individuals have experienced anecdotally, which I think is interesting.

We talked about candidates like Kimberly Edwards in Michigan, and maybe the listeners don’t know her story. She came out of nowhere with about $1000 in campaign funds, no endorsements, and she defeated her Democratic primary opponent, Richard Steenland, last August last year, so she just came nowhere. African American woman in a majority white district, mother of four, no experience, and she just said, “I’m going to run.” And she won by 300 votes in the primary, and she went on to win, in the general election, 70% of the votes in her district. Some might say she’s an exception or an outlier, and we say, yeah, she is the exception, meaning we need more individuals like that to run, and take the dive in and say, “I’m just going to do it.” The rarity is not the win. The rarity is that we don’t see as many of these candidates showing up to run for office as we would like.

Another candidate, here in Michigan, John James. He ran ahead of Trump in Michigan in 2020 when he ran for Senate. He lost, but he ran ahead of Trump in the state. Then in 2022, he defeated Carl Malinga by fewer than 2000 votes in a district that’s 88% white. He’s a GOP candidate, African American GOP candidate. So again, this is a GOP district- Or, sorry, this is a competitive district that’s 80% white district, and he wins. He runs, and he had lost two previous elections, two big statewide elections, and could have given up and said that’s it.

When we talk to people, we have these anecdotes, and we hear from people that this matches the experiences that they’ve had in trying to convince party operatives and gatekeepers to support them in their paths to office.

Matt Grossmann: As you mentioned, you find not only that they’re equally likely to win, but actually slightly more likely to win. I want to talk about how seriously we should take that finding, and if there might be a chance to see that increase?

Of course, we do have within the Democratic party increasing views of the kinds that were shown to be for more support for Obama in 2008; more racially liberal attitudes over time.

You could even see a story in the Republican party where they say, “We want to demonstrate that we’re not the racist party, that we’re actually the party that should represent minority voters,” and seeing a potential advantage there going forward, growing. I guess, what’s the chance that there is a real advantage, and that advantage will grow?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: I don’t want to over-rely on the results of this one paper for that, I’m much more comfortable relying on the null finding because it matches all of our previous work, and a lot of work that our people are doing. So that’s where we’ll hang our hats.

But I do find it enticing, and interesting, and intriguing to, hopefully, produce more work going forward to take a look at this. I can speculate a little bit, that I do think that there is a large segment of the population,- I think you put it perfectly right. I think for both parties there are real incentives for voters to demonstrate their racially liberal or racial bonafide; that this represents that they are not prejudiced, not bigoted, not sexist, and that they want to express those values in their votes.

We certainly see this in- Outside of the electoral context, we certainly see the GOP diversifying again. Here in Michigan, the new GOP state chair is an African American woman. We see that the parties are both trying to do this and promote different kinds of candidates than they have in the past, and so I think that’s really hopeful.

Again, we do see a growth in the diversity of demographics of candidates running in these state legislative races. We know that that will eventually lead to more diversity in Congress in the federal level and executive levels, because that’s where a lot of these candidates cut their teeth and office holders cut their teeth, is in state legislatures.

Gretchen Whitman, of course, serving in the Michigan State legislature for years before moving up, and it’s a very kind of normal path. I think it’s something like two thirds of house members were state legislative office holders at one point or another. As we see more of these lower level offices being held by a more diverse array of candidates that we have historically not seen, I do have some hope that that will translate into more national changes.

Matt Grossmann: Your chance to pitch what you’re working on next, or anything we didn’t get to that you want to include?

Eric Gonzalez Juenke: Well, we’re working on the book that will put all of this work that we’ve been doing over the last decade, and this is me, and Paru Shah, and Bernard Fraga. I should say, and it’s probably that on this paper it’s Bernard, Paru, myself, and Ariel White at MIT, who worked on this paper together.

But Paru, Bernard, and I are working on a book that we’re going to look at the last 10, 15 years has just been a fascinating time to be studying this at the state legislative level, at the local level. We’re going to try and put that, these changes, this kind of growth in the diversity of our legislatures, into context. Not just from an officeholder standpoint, and I think that’s we’re the idea that we’re trying to push, but that you actually have to look at the candidates who are running. You have to look at the people who run and lose in order to really understand the choices that the voters are given before you make some inferences about voters and their choices.

that’s the big project for the next year or so. We have grad students who are working on trying to get into the secret world of how ambition turns into opportunity for these candidates. Kecia Dickinson is working on Black women candidates. Jamil Scott is working on a book looking at the networks that candidates use, and black women candidates use, to turn their ambitions into opportunities.

There’s a lot of really exciting work going on right now. Jessica Priest, Dan Butler, [inaudible 00:55:02], Danielle Lemi, and Nadia Brown; they’re all doing really great work to open up this box and see how this is actually working. How are people identified as good candidates? Where do they get trained to run for office? How are they getting their information? How do they get tied into donor networks? A lot of that has been behind closed doors historically. I think there’s just some really cool work being done right now trying to get at those questions.

I guess the last thing, we’ll maybe close something unsaid, is one interpretation of this work, and I think this is the wrong one, but one interpretation of this work is that we’re in some kind of post-racial state of politics in American politics. I think that’s not right. Now, I might be wrong; I don’t think that’s correct.

We sometimes get pushback when we present this work, that somehow we’re suggesting racial prejudice isn’t important in our elections or that it means that we’re post-racial, and I have to work really hard to refute this, so I want to be clear. Personally, I’ve devoted my entire career to studying racism and bigotry in our politics, and racial ethnic politics. I believe it’s one of the fundamental political cleavages in our society, and it’s because the parties have increasingly polarized on this issue over the last 50, 60 years, that beliefs about this cleavage have come to define who belongs on which partisan team, and explains why.

Who is giving this message, whether it’s Ted Cruz, who is the son of a Cuban political asylum seeker and promotes conservative racial politics; or Kamala Harris, who’s the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants who’s promoting a more liberal racial politics. It’s what the message is. The willingness to be in line with the party message on race overrides one’s demographic identity, to many voters. That’s much more interesting of a conclusion to this evidence, because it opens up so many more questions than just saying, “Oh, well, we’re all done here.” I think racial politics has, in many ways, come to define the parties, which makes it more salient as a political phenomenon, not less.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann.

If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, they’re all linked on our website: Multiracial Electoral Coalitions for Minority Candidates; Did Americans’ Racial Attitudes Elect Trump; The Roots of the Party’s Racial Switch; How Politics Changes our Racial Views and Identities; and When Partisanship Forms our Identity.

Thanks to Eric Gonzalez Juenke for joining me. Please check out Evaluating the Minority Candidate Penalty with a Regression Discontinuity Approach, and then listen in next time.