Expert Commentary

White Democrats less likely to support presidential candidates who court Latino voters, experimental research suggests

When Democratic presidential candidates appeal to Latino voters, white Democrats become less supportive, a study finds.

white Democrats party Latino voter support research
Flag shirts at Fiesta DC, a Latino festival in Washington DC, 2015. (U.S. Bureau of Global Public Affairs)

Democratic presidential candidates who try to appeal to Latino voters risk losing support from white Democrats, according to experimental research published recently in Political Behavior.

In one hypothetical scenario, some white Democrats responded to these outreach efforts by supporting a Republican candidate, the study finds.

Author Mara Cecilia Ostfeld, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, likens the responses she observed to the demographic shifts that occurred decades ago between the Democratic and Republican parties. As more black voters chose Democratic political candidates in the late 1960s, more white voters sided with Republicans.

Ostfeld’s findings “point to a new phase of racial realignment in the American political system,” she explains in her paper, “The New White Flight?: The Effects of Political Appeals to Latinos on White Democrats.”

“Past research has highlighted the ways that Latinos’ growing presence in the United States is changing how American political campaigns are run,” she writes. “In this paper, I build on this by demonstrating that the resulting shifts in campaign strategy are also affecting the way that Americans position racial groups — and themselves — in American politics.”

Three experiments

Ostfeld performed three experiments across two U.S. presidential elections — one in 2012 and two in 2016 — to find out how white voters respond to seeing Democratic candidates courting Latino voters. In all three experiments, the Democratic presidential candidates lost support among white Democrats. Because Ostfeld wanted to focus on the behavior of white, non-Latino adults, Latinos who self-identify as white were not included in the study.

For the first experiment, Ostfeld conducted a national survey in June 2012, using a nationally representative sample of 578 white adults, 48% of whom identified as Democrats or as Democratic-leaning. Participants were randomly assigned to watch one of two 30-second campaign ads promoting Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

One ad was broadcast in English while the other presented both English- and Spanish-language content. The two ads were original ads from Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, with identical visual content. The meaning of the audio content, whether broadcast in English or Spanish, also was the same.

After viewing one of the ads, participants rated how they felt about Obama. Ostfeld writes that “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.”

White Republicans’ ratings of Obama were uniformly low and did not appear to be influenced by either ad.

In the second experiment, conducted between Oct. 11-14, 2016, 343 white adults used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to view one of two potential homepage layouts for an online news website. Both homepage layouts were the same, except for the headline on the featured news story. One headline said, “Hillary Courts Latino Voters.’’ The other said, “Hillary Courts Undecided Voters.” After viewing the homepage layouts, participants answered questions about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Ostfeld discovered that white Democrats who read the headline about undecided voters were almost 10 percentage points more likely to say they planned to support Clinton in the presidential election than those who read the headline focusing on Latino voters.

The third experiment was administered to 269 white adults on Oct. 31, 2016 through Qualtrics, an online survey firm. Again, participants were assigned to view one of two homepage layouts – the same ones used in the second experiment. But this time, participants responded to additional questions, including a question about their level of support for Trump and a question asking which of four presidential candidates would be selected if the 2016 election were held that day.

All white adults who read the homepage layout featuring the “Hillary Courts Latino Voters’’ headline “doubled their favorability ratings for Trump … [and] were more than twice as likely to say they would vote for Trump” compared with participants who saw the other layout.

White Democrats who viewed the homepage layout with the “Hillary Courts Latino Voters’’ headline were about 9 percentage points less likely to say they would vote for Clinton if the election was held that day. They were about 11 percentage points more likely to say they would pick Trump.

“That’s exactly the same dynamic that occurred right after [passage of] the Voting Rights Act” in 1965, Ostfeld says. “It’s extremely problematic and scary at this time.”

A shrinking pool of white Democrats

Today, white men and women make up a much smaller share of Democratic voters nationwide than they did two decades ago, a 2019 report from Pew Research Center shows. In 2017, white people comprised 59% of all registered voters who were Democrats or Democratic-leaning — down from 75% in 1997.

Meanwhile, the party has become more diverse. In 2017, 39% of Democratic voters were black, Latino, Asian or of another race or ethnicity, up 15 percentage points over the same period.

Ostfeld says her research indicates that as politicians do more outreach within Latino communities, the share of white Democrats will continue to fall.

“We see Latinos and other people of color getting attention and, for a lot of white people, that’s threatening, and they’re thinking about their role in … American politics,” says Ostfeld, who also works as an analyst at NBC and Telemundo during national elections.

Ostfeld notes that prior research has shown that targeted outreach to Latinos — using the Spanish language or explicitly directing certain messages to Latinos and their families — benefits political candidates. It results in higher Latino voter turnout as well as increased support for candidates who court Latinos, who, according to the Pew Research Center, will be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate in 2020.

A record 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in the next presidential election, show projections that Pew reported early this week.




While interviewing Ostfeld about this study, Journalist’s Resource asked her how journalists could do a better job covering demographic changes among the political parties. She had two pieces of advice:

  • Don’t segregate your news coverage.

Years ago, news outlets often created a separate news product to target Latino audiences, Ostfeld says. A number of English-language newspapers, for example, printed a Spanish-language or bilingual version of itself, offering additional content focused specifically on Latino issues, events and people.

As the Latino population has grown, English-language newsrooms have started dedicating more coverage to Latino events, issues and people. “It’s still jarring for a lot of people – mainly white people – to see Latino coverage integrated into their coverage,” Ostfeld says.

She stresses that more news outlets should treat Latino audiences as a regular part of their overall audience. “When that becomes the norm more, that will become less jarring,” she says. “Not that we should be catering [to Latinos]. I do think we can’t segregate our media coverage.”

  • Interview Latinos for all types of stories.

Ostfeld says news coverage should “normalize the presence of Latinos in everyday life.” That means journalists need to interview them and feature them in stories across beats.  Latinos’ role in society should not be emphasized only in stories about topics such as immigration or a trade war with Mexico, she says.

“Latinos just have to become a standard part of coverage,” she says.


Want more research on Latinos and elections? We’ve highlighted studies that look at whether Latinos are more likely to win political offices if election materials are printed in English and Spanish and how speaking Spanish to an English-only audience could affect a candidate’s chances of winning an election.



This image was obtained from the Flickr account of GPA Photo Archive and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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