Posted on August 13, 2020

Will Kamala Harris’s Multiracial Background Help or Hurt in Attracting Voters?

Danielle Casarez Lemi, Washington Post, August 13, 2020

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that he had selected Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate. Because Harris is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, in the coming months, people may refer to her as Black, Jamaican, Asian or South Asian American, Indian, biracial, multiracial or some combination of these.

With the United States undergoing demographic change, Harris’s many possible identifications are hardly unusual. An increasing number of people identify with two or more races on the U.S. Census. As many as 10 percent of newborn babies may be multiracial, according to the census. When parentage and grand-parentage are counted, about as much as 7 percent of the general population may be considered multiracial, too. Americans who identify as multiracial have a median age of about 20, suggesting that we will probably be seeing more Democratic multiracial candidates running for office in the future. Their backgrounds may be consequential for their politics.


Although many political scientists have conducted research on how voters respond to candidates assigned to a single racial category, we know fairly little about how voters evaluate candidates assigned to multiple categories. Multiracial people are often asked: What are you? {snip}


In 2016, I conducted a conjoint survey experiment on 786 Asian, Black, Hispanic and White American participants recruited in a convenience sample from the research firm Lucid. A conjoint survey experiment is a technique that allows researchers to assess which factors matter more than others. Each participant read a hypothetical scenario about 10 pairs of two candidates running for Congress. Each candidate was randomly assigned various characteristics in the categories of race, gender, political experience, partisanship, ideology and whether they were born in the United States. Candidates could be Asian, Black, Hispanic, White or a combination of two of those categories. Participants were asked to review each pair of candidates and choose whom they would vote for. The goal was to determine how voters use race to select whom they’ll vote for, even when they have other information about the candidate.

I found that, generally, all participants were about four percentage points less likely to vote for a multiracial candidate from their own racial group than for a single-race candidate from their racial group. This suggests that compared with candidates assigned to a single category, the assignment to two categories may cost multiracial candidates votes from their own racial groups.

By contrast, voters preferred single-race candidates from their own group by about 15 percentage points over a single-race racial outsider. {snip}


{snip} While this research did not consider appearance, Harris may benefit from being a lighter-skinned Black woman with straight hair. To be sure, many observers have raised concerns about Harris’s record as a prosecutor, which might be particularly troubling for Black voters. {snip}