Voters perceive non-white politicians as more liberal — even when they’re not

Herman Cain by Gage SkidmoreRacial stereotypes influence how people view members of Congress, according to research published in American Politics Research this month.

“Whether voters are able to effectively hold their representatives accountable for their record in office depends critically on whether citizens have accurate perceptions of what has been done in their names,” Philip Edward Jones of the University of Delaware wrote in his study.

“Here, the results show that even when given clear and specific information about a politician’s record, voters categorize them by race and infer ideology and party affiliation based on generalizations about racial groups.”

The findings were based on a July 2011 survey of about 1,850 U.S. adults, which included a roughly equal number of black, Hispanic, and white respondents.

The participants were shown a fictitious “Issues and Legislation” webpage of either a black representative named Joe Washington, a Hispanic representative named Jose Gonzalez, or a white representative named Joe Mueller. All three webpages included a prominent image of the fictitious representative in the banner heading.

All three webpages stated the fictitious representatives’ position on Obamacare, the 2009 stimulus, a pathway to citizenship in the comprehensive immigration reform bill, increasing taxes on those earning $250,000 or more, and the use of racial profiling by airport security officials.

The participants then rated how liberal or conservative the representative was. They were also asked whether the Congressman was a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent.

Jones found that black and Hispanic representatives were perceived as significantly more liberal than the white representative, even though the policy positions of all three were identical. The black representative was perceived to be about 2.76 percentage points more liberal than the white representative, while the Hispanic representative was perceived to be about 2.44 percentage points more liberal than the white representative.

The participants were also more likely to view the two non-white representatives as Democrats.

“Far from a world in which voters ignore race when evaluating politicians, or one in which all citizens engage in a data-gathering process based on policy positions, citizens are apt to categorize incumbents by race and infer the rest,” Jones concluded in his study.

“Even in ‘high information’ conditions, where voters are presented with specific details about a politician’s stances, the stereotypes of non-white politicians as liberals and Democrats can distort perceptions of what they have done in office, and skew their approval ratings in significant ways.”

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