Coethnic Endorsements and Perceptions in Local Elections

By Andrea Benjamin (UNC-Chapel Hill)

Most people are familiar with endorsements in Presidential Primaries and other elections.  During election season, it seems we cannot go one day without an announcement about an endorsement for one candidate or another.  But what is an endorsement?  An endorsement is a cue or a heuristic—a signal—and it conveys a lot of information.  Although one of the most important cues in elections is partisanship, not all elections are partisan and some elections involve only one party (like Presidential Primaries).  In these instances, candidates hope that endorsements send an important signal to voters indicating that the endorsed candidate is better than the other candidate(s).  Most local elections do not use partisan cues, so voters may find that endorsements help them decide which candidate to support.  There is some evidence from real world elections that shows that endorsements and preferences move together and some examples where they do not.

In Los Angeles in 2001, Jim Hahn, a White candidate, was elected Mayor of Los Angeles over Antonio Villaraigosa, a Latino candidate.  During the course of that campaign, Hahn received a majority of Black endorsements and the majority of the Black vote.  Four years later, Villaraigosa defeats Hahn in a rematch of their 2001 mayoral contest, only this time a majority of Blacks voted for Villaraigosa. An important event occurred between 2001 and 2005: Hahn did not reappoint Bernard Parks as the police Chief and Black voters were not happy about it. Hahn was on the wrong side of an issue and Black leaders and voters responded accordingly. In the 2005 election, Villaraigosa received more endorsements from Black leaders, while Hahn’s Black endorsement list was slim.

The story in Houston is different from Los Angeles. In 1997, Lee Brown, who is Black, faced a White candidate, Robert Mosbacher in the run-off election.  In the election, Mosbacher amassed several key endorsements from Latino leaders, while Brown only received a few Latino endorsements. Still, a majority of Latinos supported Brown in his bid to be the first Black mayor of Houston. This election did not highlight any racial or ethnic issues.  Yet, Blacks do not always follow endorsements either.  In the 2015 Chicago Mayoral election, Rahm Emanuel faced Chuy ‘Chico” Garcia, a Latino candidate, in his bid for re-election. For the first time in city history, there was run-off election to determine the winner. Although Garcia amassed several key endorsements from Black leaders and highlighted the high crime rates in Black and Latino neighborhoods in an attempt to garner Black support, he was not successful.  This might be because Emanuel had the advantage of being an incumbent. Despite receiving more Black endorsements, Garcia did not receive a majority of the Black vote.

While endorsements are common, we still have a lot to learn.  Some voters may already prefer the endorsed candidate or voters may have an opinion about the organization or individual offering the endorsement.  Alternatively, for some voters an endorsement from a particular group might send the signal to vote for the other candidate!  While some researchers have found that voters rely on endorsements from organizations, newspapers, and interest groups, there has been little research on endorsements from racial and ethnic organizations.  I rely on data from a survey experiment to determine how voters respond to endorsements from a fictional organization for a fictional candidate and to determine if co-ethnic endorsements work as well as other endorsements. The benefit of the experiment is that I can control the information the respondents receive to try to isolate the causal mechanisms at work.  In order to connect the data to the real world, I relied on elections in cities like Los Angeles and Houston to design the experimental treatments I used in this study.

In my article, “Co-Ethnic Endorsements, Out-Group Candidate Preferences, and Perceptions in Local Elections,” I explore the relationship between co-ethnic endorsements and candidate preferences among Blacks and Latinos in Mayoral Elections.  The data from the experiment mimic the real world.  When the fictional Latino candidate was endorsed, Blacks were more likely to prefer him.  Much like Villaraigosa in the 2005 Los Angeles election, this was especially true in the presence of racial issues, as we saw after the police chief incident. Even the White candidate did will among Blacks when an issue was mentioned, which was similar Hahn in the Los Angeles 2001 election. For Latinos, the endorsements do not change candidate support, which is like what we saw in Houston with Mosbacher in the 1997 election.  However, the experiment shows that endorsements do help Latinos believe that a particular candidate is sympathetic to Latinos.  For Blacks and Latinos (when the endorsements were persuasive), endorsed out-group minority candidates do better than endorsed White candidates. Endorsed White candidates need racial or ethnic issues to be highlighted for the endorsements to work.  These issues help make racial and ethnic identity salient to the respondents.  Most importantly, endorsements alone are not enough for Blacks or Latinos.  This suggests that voters may use endorsements, but they do not simply follow them blindly.

Finally, the study offers some insights into the potential for Blacks and Latinos to form electoral coalitions in order to get their preferred candidate into office.  Given the results for both groups, a potentially viable Black-Latino coalition might be a Latino candidate led coalition.  That candidate’s strategy should include outreach to the Latino community (to ensure co-ethnic support) and endorsements from Black leaders, organizations, and politicians to garner Black support.  However, as the Chicago 2015 election shows, the Latino candidate might do better in an open election with no incumbent on the ballot.

Andrea Benjamin is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2010. Her research interests include Race and Politics, Elections and Voting behavior, and Public Opinion.


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