Ethno-Racial Appeals and the Production of Political Capital: Evidence from Chicago and Toronto

By Jan Doering (McGill University)

Donald Trump’s election has renewed our attention to the use of racial appeals in electoral campaigning. Among other things, Trump infamously referred to Latino immigrants as “bad hombres,” murderers, and rapists. Since then, numerous candidates have followed his lead. In the 2018 campaign for the Florida governorship, for example, the Republican candidate Ron DeSantis called on voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for the Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee. For social scientists, Trump and DeSantis’s appeals are remarkable because they are so blunt and explicit.

From the perspective of established political science wisdom, starkly explicit racial appeals should no longer occur. According to Tali Mendelberg’s influential racial priming theory, Americans have become increasingly committed to the “norm of racial equality” since the 1960s. This norm, of course, would be fundamentally inconsistent with Trump and DeSantis’s campaign appeals. According to the theory of racial priming, explicit racial appeals should alienate rather than mobilize voters—even Whites. Mendelberg argued that Whites still vote on the basis of racial fears and resentments, but that political campaigns have to activate these fears and resentments with great care, taking an implicit, ambiguous, and suggestive approach. Explicit racial messages, on the other hand, should be absent from political campaigning, because they would be expected to backfire. The electoral victories of Trump and DeSantis show that racial priming theory, even if it may have once been correct, no longer is.

Social scientists thus need a new theory of racial appeals. Additionally, my recent research shows that the theory of racial priming is also incomplete, because it ignores appeals that are directed at non-White and White ethnic audiences.

After gathering and analyzing hundreds of printed canvassing documents from the 2014 Toronto and 2015 Chicago municipal elections, I found that electoral campaigns in both cities communicated a significant number of explicit messages about race and ethnicity. It’s simply that these messages were not seeking to mobilize White voters, but rather racial and ethnic minority voters. Obviously, even if the norm of racial equality still fully applied, appeals to minority voters would not be constrained in the same way as appeals to Whites. But reading existing scholarship, I could neither find a detailed description of these kinds of ethno-racial messages nor a theory that might account for them.

My paper thus seeks to accomplish two things. First, the paper analyzes and describes explicit ethno-racial appeals in previously unavailable detail. Municipal campaign material turned out to be a rich data source for this purpose. A campaign flyer for Alderwoman JoAnn Thompson’s reelection campaign in Chicago’s 16th ward provides an example. With this canvassing document, the alderwoman tried to mobilize Black voters by promising to increase the number of Black students in the city’s best public schools. The document also cites an endorsement from the City Council’s Black caucus.

Similar to this document, forceful promises of political advocacy on behalf of a specific group were not uncommon in Chicago, especially in highly segregated wards. In more ethno-racially diverse Chicago wards—as well as everywhere in Toronto, where racial segregation is much less pronounced than in Chicago—candidates choose less ethno-partisan strategies. They still explicitly reference race and ethnicity, but they more frequently celebrate ethno-racial identities in innocuous ways with the help of ethnic flags, cultural practices, and other tools.

Second, the paper presents a theory of ethno-racial appeals. Drawing on the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, I suggest that all ethno-racial appeals seek to produce or destroy a candidate or party’s political capital among voters. In the realm of ethno-racial politics, this capital is group-specific rather than general. For example, JoAnn Thompson’s canvassing document would increase her political capital among Black voters, but probably not among Latinos or Whites. After all, the latter’s chances of placing their children in the city’s best schools would presumably decline if Thompson fulfilled her promise. Thompson’s racial appeal thus builds her political capital among African Americans at the possible expense of her standing among Whites and Latinos.

In addition to appeals that serve as a direct source of political capital, candidates can invoke their group-specific cultural and social capital and try to convert it into political capital. Thompson, for example, cites an endorsement from the City Council’s Black caucus. This constitutes a form of social capital that allows her access to the overall credibility (read: political capital) the caucus might have among Black voters. Finally, candidates can produce political capital by establishing that they are rich in group-specific cultural capital—the capital of authentic group membership. Thompson’s document contains no such appeal, but many Chicago and Toronto documents do.

One important factor to consider when thinking about ethno-racial appeals is that the latter do not simply mobilize existing groups within a city. Rather, successful appeals summon voters as members of the particular category they invoke. In other words, to mobilize voters through their ethno-racial category is to try and reinforce the role of that category in their thinking as well as in political discourse. Consequently, electoral campaigns do not merely communicate with existing groups but actually fashion and reinforce them. In this way, campaigning leaves traces in social communities that go beyond the policies that candidates can pursue after taking office.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Matthew Hamilton on Unsplash

Author Biography

Jan Doering is an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University. His research examines ethno-racial conflict, urban processes, and politics. His first book, an ethnographic study of race, crime, and gentrification in Chicago neighborhoods, is under contract with Oxford University Press. Twitter: @jandoering. Website:

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