How ‘strategic’ bias keeps Americans from voting for women and candidates of color

<span class="caption">Women like congressional candidate Cori Bush from Missouri face greater obstacles than white men when trying to reach political office.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Getty Images for Supermajority">Getty Images for Supermajority</a></span>
Women like congressional candidate Cori Bush from Missouri face greater obstacles than white men when trying to reach political office. Getty Images for Supermajority

When Americans vote this fall, the candidates on their ballots will not reflect the diversity of the United States.

Despite recent gains, women and people of color still do not run for office as frequently as white men. In part, this is because they face skepticism about their electability.

When former Rep. Katie Hill launched her campaign for Congress in 2017, for example, Democrats told her a woman couldn’t win in her California district.

In Alabama, meanwhile, when Adia Winfrey was exploring a 2018 run for Congress, a senior party official told her there was “no point” continuing with her nascent campaign. The problem? As a Black candidate, she seemed unelectable.

And in Michigan, 2018 congressional candidate Suneel Gupta, an Indian-American, heard similar concerns. As Gupta recounts, the rationale from some local Democrats was, “I’m not racist, but my neighbor is racist … so I don’t think you’d be a strong a candidate.”

As a political scientist and former congressional candidate, I think these comments reflect a subtle yet pervasive form of discrimination in politics. It’s something I call “strategic discrimination.”

Other people’s views

Strategic discrimination occurs when a party leader, donor or primary voter worries that others will object to a candidate’s identity. As a result, these key actors may not endorse, fund or vote for candidates who fall outside the norm due to their race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

The problem is not direct bias or animosity. Rather, strategic discrimination is driven by concerns about other people’s views.

As was on full display in the 2020 Democratic primary, even liberals who typically value diversity can engage in strategic discrimination if they think others are biased.

In focus groups, for example, Black Democratic primary voters said they saw promise in Kamala Harris’ candidacy, but they hesitated to support her because they worried America wouldn’t elect a Black woman.

Strategic discrimination typically occurs prior to a primary election. Of course, party leaders want to support candidates who share their policy views. But they also want to win. So when they are deciding whom to support, party chairs, delegates, donors and elected officials make speculative, anticipatory judgments about how candidates will perform in the general election.

In this “futures market” of politics, diverse candidates are at a sharp disadvantage. In my research, I’ve found that Americans see hypothetical white male candidates as more electable than equally qualified Black women, white women and, to a lesser degree, Black men.

The perceived electability gap is especially severe for women of color. Studies I’ve conducted show that Black women are viewed as much less competitive than either white women or Black men. Compared to a white man with the same education and experience in elected office, a Black woman is nearly a third less likely to be considered “very electable.”

The term “electable” has long been

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