Megan Schmidt
KU News Service

Book touts 'Latina advantage' in congressional campaigns

Fri, 09/06/2013

LAWRENCE — Who is more likely to succeed in politics: a white woman or a Latina?

If you assumed the white candidate has a better shot, think again.

In her new book, “The Latina Advantage: Gender, Race and Political Success,” University of Kansas political science professor Christina Bejarano explores evidence that female minorities may be helped — not hurt — by how the intersection of their gender and ethnicity/race influences Americans’ votes. The book was released this week by the University of Texas Press.

Over the years, minority women have faced assumptions that the combined effects of gender and racial stereotypes will harm their chances of being elected. This notion is sometimes referred to as a “double disadvantage” theory.

However, the impressive growth in minority women elected to U.S. Congress and state legislatures in the past two decades tells a different story, Bejarano argues.

“Minority women can face some advantages when they run for office — they can secure more public support by appealing to a wider array of communities and voter coalitions,” Bejarano said. “They’re also often better prepared for holding office, and white voters tend to see them as less ‘threatening’ than minority male candidates.”

In the book, Bejarano points out that in Congress, minority women account for a greater share of the total number of minority elected officials of either gender than white women do of total white elected officials.

In the 108th Congress (2003-2005), of the 463 members of Congress who were white, only 57 were white women. Translated to a percent: of all white Congress members, only 12 percent were female.

Latinas, however, accounted for 29 percent of all Latino congressional membership, while black women comprised 33 percent of black representatives.

In following (109th) Congress, white women comprised 13.2 percent of the white congressional delegation. Black women accounted for 28 percent of black Congress members, and Latinas were 27 percent of Latino representatives — slightly lower than the previous Congress, but each still more than double the percent of representation white women had among the white delegation.

Past research has analyzed how women and racial/ethnic minorities are affected by voter bias and political disadvantage. However, Bejarano wanted to study how being both female and a racial or ethnic minority shaped public opinion of a candidate, she said.

Latinas proved an especially remarkable group to study because, in politics, they’ve come far.

The first Latina was elected to Congress in 1989. By the end of the 1990s, six Latinas had served in Congress, a 500 percent increase in one decade. The number of Latinas in state legislatures also jumped from 16 to 61 during that period, a 280 percent increase.

While Latinas remain underrepresented in office in relation to their population, these increases still outpaced growth of Latino representation and female representation.

“The question on my mind was, ‘Why?’” Bejarano said.

American National Election Study data from 1992 to 2008 shows white voters are 11.6 percent more likely to vote for a minority legislative incumbent if she is female. Minority voters are 10 percent more likely to vote for white incumbents if they’re women. Bejarano concludes gender “softens” the threat perceived by racial/ethnic differences.

The ANES data also showed white voters were more likely than minority voters to give low approval ratings to minority incumbents — except when the incumbents were women.

Rather than facing the “double disadvantage” of being a woman and a minority, a Latina candidate benefits from her “multiple identity advantage,” Bejarano argues. She can likely count on support from fellow minorities, as well as white women, who are more likely than white men to support minority candidates. She can also shield herself from negative reaction to her race by drawing attention to her identity as a female.

Bejarano also analyzed Latina representation in state legislatures. In Arizona, Latinas made up 37.5 percent (six of 16 seats) of the Latino delegation in 2005 and 50 percent (seven of 14 seats) in 2009. In Illinois, Latinas comprised 54.5 percent of the total Latino legislative delegation in 2005 and 50 percent in 2009.

Further analysis of the two states with the largest number of Latino elected officials — Texas and California — showed that Latina legislative candidates on average had more education and more involvement in community organizations than their Latino counterparts. Bejarano found that in many cases, not only did their more extensive experience levels help Latinas win their first race, but also made it more likely that they’d run unopposed in the next election.

“(Latinas) may assume they will face more obstacles as women and as minorities, so they make sure they’re as qualified as possible before they consider running,” Bejarano said.

Whether Latinas and other minority women continue to grow their presence in political office remains to be seen. White females hit a plateau in the 1990s after making great strides in political representation.

“The takeaway of all this information is it broadens our assumptions about what makes a political candidate appealing,” Bejarano said.

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