There are right — and wrong — ways to court voters of color

by Ian Haney-López

My granddaughter is part of a new generation that will swell the number of Latino voters to 32 million this year. Somewhere in the United States, a young Latino turns 18 every 40 seconds, and the Pew Research Center projects that in 2020 we will become the largest nonwhite segment of the electorate, surpassing African Americans.

Almost two-thirds of Latino voters align with the Democratic Party (62% Democrat compared with 34% Republican), so it seems evident this wave is a boon for Democrats. But there’s potential danger as well. Recent research shows that Democratic efforts to woo Hispanics — or, more precisely, certain forms of outreach — can cause liberal white voters to shift their allegiance from Democrats to Republicans.

My own research on racial dynamics in voting confirms this insight. But I’ve also found that there’s a way to galvanize Latino voters that, far from alienating whites, energizes them as well. In a close election, 2020 could well turn on whether — and how — Democrats reach out to Latino voters.

One way to connect to Hispanic voters is to run ads in Spanish. This appeals to voters proficient in Spanish. And even for those who are English-dominant (as are 90% of Latinos born in the U.S.), campaign ads in Spanish can communicate respect and welcome. But to a disturbing number of white Democrats, Spanish seems to communicate something else entirely.

The research of the political scientist Mara Cecilia Ostfeld should give Democratic campaigns pause. Ostfeld conducted a 2012 experiment with almost 600 white adults using a 30-second ad taken from the Obama campaign. Half the group watched the original in English. The other half watched a version in which the audio content was presented in Spanish, supplemented by English subtitles.

Whites who identified as Republicans largely rated Obama poorly. Whether they watched the English or Spanish version mattered little to them.

But among whites who identified as Democrats, the Spanish ad had a significant negative impact. “Levels of favorability toward Obama were about 11 percentage points lower among white Democrats after viewing the ad with Spanish-language content — despite the fact that there were English subtitles and the content was, therefore, fully accessible — relative to when viewing the same ad entirely in English,” Ostfeld reported.

Ostfeld found similar negative effects when Democratic candidates were described as “courting” Hispanic voters. In 2016, she showed white adults two versions of an online news headline. One said “Hillary Clinton Courts Undecided Voters.” The other declared “Hillary Clinton Courts Latino Voters.”

When shown the Latino outreach version, white Democrats were about 9% less likely to say they would vote for Clinton, and 11% more likely to vote for Donald Trump. The difference in reaction among white Democrats — currently 59% of all Democratic voters, according to Pew — could easily swing the 2020 election if this effect were to manifest in the voting booth.

This effect is similar to what I’ve found with race in electoral campaigns. Many whites have long filtered Democratic efforts to woo African Americans through a zero-sum frame in which they worry that gains for blacks come at the expense of whites.

But a large research project I co-directed found that there are ways to address race that generate enthusiasm for progressive positions among people of color while increasing, rather than diminishing, support from whites as well.

To study how to talk about race in political campaigns, in 2018 we polled a nationally representative sample of 2,000 people. Among other things, we asked respondents which came closer to their views: a pro-business message or a progressive economic message. The pro-business message said: “To make life better for working people we need to cut taxes, reduce regulations, and get government out of the way.”

For the progressive message, we offered respondents two versions. One included the italicized text and the other did not: “To make life better for working people we need to invest in education, create better paying jobs, and make healthcare more affordable for white, black, and brown people struggling to make ends meet.”

The race-silent version of the progressive message beat the pro-business message by a margin of 32 points. This result suggests that voters generally prefer progressive over pro-business economic policies.

But when the progressive policy message included the phrase “white, black, and brown,” the winning margin over the pro-business message increased to 41 points.

Importantly, this included a big jump in favorable response from whites. Hearing that progressive policies would help “white, black, and brown people” increased white support for investing in education, creating better-paying jobs, and making healthcare more affordable by 12 percentage points. The inclusion of whites in the message seemed to dispel the concern that gains for nonwhite groups come at the expense of the white group.

Democrats should recognize that mobilizing nonwhite communities risks alienating white voters, if done in the wrong way. Democrats have not won a majority of the white vote in a presidential election since 1964. To defeat Trump, they need to win big among voters of color, including among young people who are the most diverse rising generation ever, while also building enthusiasm among white voters.

Democrats can do both by reaching out to communities of color while stressing that empowering each group is good for every group, whites included.

Ian Haney López is a law professor at UC Berkeley and the author of “Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America.”


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