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Political Scientist Mackenzie Israel-Trummel Examines Race, Identity Politics Ahead Of 2016 Election

Jan 18, 2016

Just weeks before voters caucus in Iowa and head to the polls in New Hampshire, who will become the two major parties’ standard-bearers and win the nominations is still anyone’s guess. But race and ethnic identity will likely play a much larger role on the Republican side of the aisle – the field is more crowded, there are several minority candidates, and immigration has become a key campaign issue along both the U.S. southern border and across the Atlantic as hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants and refugees from war-torn areas of the Middle East look to resettle in more stable countries.

University of Oklahoma political scientist Mackenzie Israel-Trummel told Race Matters it all boils down to identity politics and who is able to successfully tap into voters’ concerns.

“As long as there remains a fundamental difference in the belief that the free market can address people’s concerns, and that difference in belief is structured by race, identity is going to continue to matter,” Israel-Trummel said.

Israel-Trummel and host Merleyn Bell break down identity politics, previous voting patterns of minority groups, and how race changes policy priorities. Israel-Trummel also analyzes the phenomenon behind Donald Trump’s campaign and Republican party establishment concerns.

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Interview Highlights

On What Polling Data Says About The Concerns Of Latino Voters

If you look at recent polling coming out of Pew, you have Latinos saying that it’s extremely important to them to think about education policy, jobs and the economy, healthcare, and they’re saying that these are the incredibly important issues on which they’re basing their vote.  A much smaller proportion, though still significant, around 30% are saying that immigration is extremely important. Now, given that they care about the same issues that all voters care about, the important differentiation here is how they think about these issues. So, Latino voters are much more likely than non-Hispanic whites to say that the role of the government should be expanded and ensuring things like quality jobs for individuals, improving education, fixing the environment; these are things that Latino voters tend to believe that government has a role in, at a higher rate than do non-Hispanic whites.

On The Significance Of “Descriptive Representation”

So, what we would call "descriptive representation", or being represented by somebody who looks like you, is important, and existing research has shown over and over again that, particularly for historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, having candidates who share your race or ethnicity is incredibly important; it promotes electoral turnout, it promotes a sense of engagement with politics, trust in the system, but, despite that, descriptive representation simply isn’t enough.  So it’s not that you can just repeat the same proposals that a white person would say, and if you’re Latino, Latino voters will support it. Latino voters are intelligent voters, just like everybody, and so they make their decisions based on the same types of things, their economic preferences, their sense of which candidate is going to be sort of the most successful in advancing their policy goals.

On Trump’s Rise And Republican Establishment Concerns

Trump is doing really well right now in the Republican primary, but the Republican establishment is deeply opposed to his election and they have really good reasons to be opposed to him. Because, if they’re interested in winning in the national election, in the general, which they should be interested in as a party, he is not a likely candidate to go the distance. He’s also actively pushing away Latino voters, which is a growing demographic in the US, and the Republican Party realized after 2012 they have to do better with this segment of the population if they want any chance of winning. So, the most recent estimates suggest that the Republican nominee is going to have to win 47 percent of the Latino population or the Latino vote to win, which is double Romney, and Trump is not going to do that. 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERELYN BELL, HOST: I’m so delighted to have you here on the show today and so fascinated by identity politics and the way they’re being highlighted by this presidential election cycle. So, let’s dive right in. So, the media talks a lot about "the Latino" vote (in air quotes), right?  But Latinos are a diverse group of people. You’ve got Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, people from the Dominican Republic, and many other countries of origin, right? So, what do Latino voters have in common?

MACKENZIE ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Great, so one of the things that you hear a lot is that Latino voters really care about immigration.  And while it’s true that Latino voters do care about immigration, they’re just like other voters and they care about a lot of really important issues that matter to them on a day to day basis. So, if you look at recent polling coming out of Pew, you have Latinos saying that it’s extremely important to them to think about education policy, jobs and the economy, healthcare, and they’re saying that these are the incredibly important issues on which they’re basing their vote.  A much smaller proportion, though still significant, around 30 percent are saying that immigration is extremely important. Now, given that they care about the same issues that all voters care about, the important differentiation here is how they think about these issues. So, Latino voters are much more likely than non-Hispanic whites to say that the role of the government should be expanded and ensuring things like quality jobs for individuals, improving education, fixing the environment; these are things that Latino voters tend to believe that government has a role in, at a higher rate than do non-Hispanic whites. 

BELL: That would indicate to me that they might be more likely to vote Democrat than they do Republican. Is that true?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Yes, exactly. And that’s what we’ve seen increasingly over time is that Latino voters tend to pick Democratic candidates and this comes down to their policy preferences and how they believe the government has a role in responding to political problems.

BELL: So, Republicans may have a problem courting Latinos to begin with, but for the Latino voters that do tend to vote Republican, let’s talk about how they’re feeling about the presidential hopefuls at the moment. You know that Trump is polling at the top of pretty much every poll right now, so how are Latino voters feeling about Trump?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: It’s a great question. As I mentioned, Latino voters tend to break Democratic, but that’s not to say that there’s not a significant number of Latinos who do support Republican candidates. So that said, recent polls, yes they’ve shown that Trump is ahead in the Republican primary, but that’s not the case if you look at Hispanic Republicans. So, they are actually very negative about Donald Trump and it’s unlikely that as a candidate he is going to be able to attract support from Republican identified Latinos. And it makes sense, right? I think we’re going to talk about some of his rhetoric in a little bit.  It’s not rhetoric that’s likely to attract people who identify as Latino or Hispanic. 

BELL: Yeah, his big talking point has been about immigration, building the wall bigger and better than ever. 

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Exactly.

BELL: You know...but that’s not a new idea and the rhetoric certainly isn’t new, and the issue of immigration isn’t new, so what is it about his rhetoric and its place in the discussion right now that is striking a different chord for people?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Sure. So, I mean we know that in previous cycles we’ve had Republican candidates who have talked about the need to build a wall and how this is a key feature of our immigration policy and fixing our broken immigration system is securing the border, and that’s been repeated by a lot of candidates. What is different about his rhetoric is his repeated use of terms like "criminal" and "rapist" to talk about an entire country full of people and an entire segment of the American population. And that is incredibly off-putting language to American Latinos.  Additionally, you have sort of this question of the viability of these policies, so it’s really resonating with a segment of the Republican electorate. We know that primary voters aren’t representative of the country at large, and what you see if you look at polls that sort of mirror some of the policy proposals that Trump is making, obviously he’s not really identifying specific policies other than "We’re going to deport everybody," but most American actually don’t support that.  So you only have about 27 percent of the public at large who’s willing to say, "We should deport everybody who is undocumented even if they’re meeting certain standards."  And so, his rhetoric, while it has appeal to segment of the population, it’s not really appealing to a broader American public. 

BELL: So, who is appealing to the Latino Republican? Is it somebody that they can identify with more like a Marco Rubio, who is himself a Cuban-American? Or is it Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican-American? Is there anyone who is more appealing to them?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: So, what we would call "descriptive representation", or being represented by somebody who looks like you, is important, and existing research has shown over and over again that, particularly for historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, having candidates who share your race or ethnicity is incredibly important; it promotes electoral turnout, it promotes a sense of engagement with politics, trust in the system, but, despite that, descriptive representation simply isn’t enough.  So it’s not that you can just repeat the same proposals that a white person would say, and if you’re Latino, Latino voters will support it. Latino voters are intelligent voters, just like everybody, and so they make their decisions based on the same types of things, their economic preferences, their sense of which candidate is going to be sort of the most successful in advancing their policy goals. And so, unless these candidates, like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, start to advance some policy’s that are actually in line with what Latino voters seem to want, it’s unlikely they’re going to be able to peel away any large segments of the Latino electorate.  They may do better with identified Republicans, but again, that’s about a quarter of the Latino population.

BELL: And how many Latino voters are we talking about in total, Democrat or Republican? 

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: The estimate right now is that Latinos comprise about 8 to 10 percent of the electorate.  That could be much larger, particularly with better voter outreach. So, "get out the vote" efforts have often not done a great job of reaching minorities.  Racial and ethnic minorities are much more likely to say they haven’t been contacted by a campaign, and so without sort of those efforts to reach people one on one, it’s unlikely we’re going to get large levels of turnouts.  So efforts, particularly among the Democrats, to do a better job of turning out a group who frankly agrees with them, we’re not going to see substantial growth past sort of that 10% mark. 

BELL: This is Race Matters. I’m Merelyn Bell. If you are just joining us, I’m speaking with Mackenzie Israel-Trummel, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. Okay Mackenzie, let’s talk about black voters, and I specifically want to talk about black Democrats, because we know that historically the majority of...black voters are registered Democrat.  So, what issues are important to black Democratic voters?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Great, yeah. So, just like you mentioned, African Americans vote for Democratic candidates at 90-plus percent. This is really...this is a shift that took place—sometimes we think about Republicans as being the party of Lincoln—that started to change through the new deal, and African American voters started to re-identify as Democrats and that only accelerated during the civil rights movement and then throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, until we got to a point where Barack Obama’s election saw just unprecedented levels of both black turnout - so, participation- and overwhelming support for Barack Obama, the first black president. So, all that said, again very similar to Latino voters, the things that black voters care about are things like jobs and the economy, they mention health care, education, all of these types of policy, and similarly to how we discussed with Latino voters, they tend to support a more active governmental role in solving some of these problems. That said, I think it’s really important to also think about how Black Lives Matter and the emergence in the news of examples of officer-involved shootings has really changed the discussion about race in presidential politics. 

BELL: We know that Bill Clinton received over 80 percent of the vote, an overwhelming amount of the black vote in ‘92 and ‘96, can Hillary Clinton expect the same level of support? 

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: So, whoever wins the Democratic nomination is very likely to be achieving 90 percent of the black vote. The question is: Will Hillary Clinton continue her advantage among black primary voters? And at this point she has a clear advantage, she has better name recognition.  The other candidates simply haven’t sort of achieved the same level of name recognition and haven’t been able to break through on issues that might make Hillary vulnerable. In particular, Bernie Sanders has had a hard time appealing to African-American voters, and part of that comes out of sort of his demographic history. Being a senator from Vermont, he has had a constituency of white progressives that he’s responded to, but he’s never really had to talk about race in the way that suddenly he’s needing to on the national stage. 

BELL: Yeah I’ve noticed that. You know, he’s been interrupted several times by Black Lives Matter  protestors, and activists, and it seems so far like black voters aren’t really feeling "the Bern." So, I wonder if those social issues, the issues that are important to Black Lives Matter, and less economic issues, as Sanders has been so focused on, you know, sort of that economic policy reform guy, if shifting his rhetoric and his focus on social issues could boost his numbers?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that social science has recognized for a long time is that talking about class or talking about race separately really isn’t enough and we have to think about these things together.  And, if you look at some of the changes that are coming out of Bernie Sanders campaign, I think you see sort of the beginning of this recognition. At first, it seemed like his campaign was really saying, "Well, we’re going to be the most liberal, economically we are going to fight for economic justice. That's going to fix a lot of racial problems." And Black Lives Matter activists really push back against that notion and said, "No, that’s not sufficient," and you have to be willing to talk about race by itself and in conjunction with economic issues. In the past few days or so his campaign has come out with a plan to end private prisons and I think this type of response is directly due to the activism of groups like Black Lives Matter. So, private prisons have been seen as one of the drivers of mass incarceration and of economic profiteering off of the over-representation in prisons of black and brown lives, and this is not the type of thing that Bernie Sanders is really that focused on prior to some of these, you know, interruptions during his rallies and stuff like that.

BELL: Yeah. So, I know that you’ve done a lot of work and research on black-brown coalitions. And I think the last issue that you highlighted about prison reform could be one of the issues where this is really important, right? But, can you briefly define the relationship, when you’re talking about black-brown coalitions, what that means?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Sure. So, in the scholarship, black-brown coalitions have sort of been thought of as being either African Americans and Latinos are particularly likely to come together politically in search of common goals because both groups are disadvantaged relative to whites overall, and then, a competing view has been, well when you have two disadvantaged groups they’re likely to compete with each other over scarce resources. And there are plenty of examples of both of these happening. And so, we sort of lacked a good understanding of all of the conditions under which we might see coalitions or we might see competition. Some research has suggested at the national level we are particularly likely to see cooperation between these groups.  If you look at the Congressional black caucus and the Hispanic leadership in the caucus, there tends to be a lot of agreement, and that’s because there’s less direct completion on the national level.  In my research, I tend to look at the mass attitude basis on the parts of these two groups for cooperation or competition and to what extent do African Americans and Latinos see that their interests really are similar and how does that affect their political participation? 

BELL: So, can you give us an example of an election where a black-brown coalition benefited a candidate?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Absolutely. I mean, Obama’s a great example of that. So, in his general race in 2008, as he was running against McCain, a lot of commentators said, you know, Hispanic voters supported Hillary Clinton and the primary they’re going to be disaffected with that and they’re going to defect away from the Democratic Party and they’re going to vote for McCain instead.  And that’s just not what happened. We saw that Obama used explosive rhetoric talking about Latinos and blacks as brothers in the struggle for equality. And that type of rhetoric about their similar struggle throughout American history was possibly used to great success, I mean it’s difficult to say what would have happened if he hadn’t used that type of rhetoric but he definitely made sort of overt gestures to win over Hispanic voters and create the sense of common minority identity. 

BELL: Will that influence the Democratic Party moving forward or is it really anybody’s guess?  Or, is it dependent on the nominee? 

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: I think to some extent it’s dependent on the nominee. So, obviously I study identities so I think it matters, but, at the same time, as we have sort of been talking about throughout our conversation, the issues really matter also. So, unless Republicans and Democrats are sort of equally competing over the issues that they’re placing forward and able to attract minority voters, identity is not going to shift people from one party to the other, but it can do things like promote turnout and a lot of this is won based on how many people go to the polls.

BELL: So, let me give you a scenario: You’ve got a white candidate for, I don’t know, state senate, and a Latino candidate running against each other. Statistically, who are black voters more likely to vote for in that race?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Yeah. So, this is the type of question that we would love to have a clear answer for but, unfortunately, the real world becomes incredibly complicated and so there are any number of factors that can determine who black voters decide to vote for in this given election.  So, part of it’s going to depend on partisan attachments, part of its going to depend on what issues are salient. The research that I have done suggests that, when there is a sense of true minority identity that can span across race, you’re more likely to get these black-brown coalitions. So, some of the research I’ve done looks at when Latino voters feel like they’re ethnic group is under threat, when they’re at risk of discrimination, they become more receptive to voting for black candidates because there becomes this sense of shared minority identity.

BELL: So, we’re nowhere close, it doesn’t feel like, to actually electing the next president, there’s a long delay between now and then.  But, we are getting closer to the caucuses and primaries, right? So, we’ve got Iowa coming up, the New Hampshire primary coming up at the beginning of the year.  What I’m really wondering is Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white, right?  Iowa is 92 percent white according to the latest census data, New Hampshire has an electorate that’s 94 percent white or just a general population that’s 94 percent white. So, can we really rely the primaries and caucuses to tell us anything about how minority voters are likely to vote?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: If we are interested in how minority voters are likely to vote, these are not good states to tell us that, and that’s not only because they’re overwhelmingly white, but because the minority voters who live amongst overwhelmingly white people tend to be different than minorities who live in minority communities.

BELL: Different how?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: So, they tend to have more money, they tend to be more politically conservative. So, it’s actually a bigger issue than simply being a white state, right? It’s that the people who are not white but choose to live in a very white state are different in many ways. So, if you have less money, you’re more likely to live in a racially segregated neighborhood, things like this.  Now, of course, it wouldn’t matter that these states are overwhelmingly white and come early if race didn’t affect how people perceive candidates and how they decide on issues.  If they were… if race was completely unrelated to our political attitudes then it would be no concern at all. But we know that that’s not true, and if we think particularly about the Iowa caucuses… Iowa as you mentioned it’s an overwhelmingly white state, it’s also a much more evangelical base for the Republican Party. So, in 2012 Rick Santorum won Iowa, in 2008 Mike Huckabee won Iowa, these are not candidates who were doing particularly well at the national level so even amongst the Republican primary you have a very different group of voters deciding ----, than you have in the Republican Party writ large. And the reason that this matters to us is that the media overwhelmingly covers these early races because they happen earlier and they end up being this sort of deciding factor for who’s viable. So, the fact that they come early means they have outsized importance and, if candidates do particularly poorly in these relative to expectations, their money sources start to dry up. If candidates do better than expected, they tend to get more media coverage and they’re suddenly gaining more money. So, these do actually have effects for what happens.

BELL: Are Iowa and New Hampshire able to say, you know, in hindsight, "Well, there you go. I mean, we picked them?"  Is that common that the winner of these primary battles ends up— I mean, we know Huckabee and Santorum didn’t— but, are they a good indicator or a bad one even despite the flaw in the demographic mix there?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Right...New Hampshire has a better track record of picking the right candidate. So, in 2012 Romney won New Hampshire and in 2008 McCain won New Hampshire, but again it’s difficult to know to what extent is it that these states pick the person who had sort of the staying power and to what extent is it if you don’t do well in one of these two states your chances are kind of over.

BELL: Okay, here’s what I really want to know: I don’t know if you’re a betting women, but, if you had to bet right now on who the nominee will be from each party, who would you choose and why?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Well, for the Democratic Party, if I were a betting women and wanted to bet safely, I would say Hillary Clinton. She is far and away doing the best right now.  That said, you know it’s four months until Iowa, it’s five months until Super Tuesday, a lot could happen. There’s a lot of room for campaigns to be run poorly and for front runners to take a dive and for someone else to really move up in the polls. For the Republican Party, I think it’s a much more open question. So, Trump is doing really well right now in the Republican primary, but the Republican establishment is deeply opposed to his election and they have really good reasons to be opposed to him. Because, if they’re interested in winning in the national election, in the general, which they should be interested in as a party, he is not a likely candidate to go the distance. He’s also, as we talked about earlier, actively pushing away Latino voters, which is a growing demographic in the U.S., and the Republican Party realized after 2012 they have to do better with this segment of the population if they want any chance of winning. So, the most recent estimates suggest that the Republican nominee is going to have to win 47 percent of the Latino population or the Latino vote to win, which is double Romney, and Trump is not going to do that. 

BELL: So, we’ve established that some elections are framed by the issues, whether it’s economics or family values or gun control, and others are framed by identity politics, you know, you voting for the person that you feel represents you and your identity. Is that going to matter more and more as the country becomes more diverse?

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: I think the answer here is that, as long as there remains a fundamental difference in the belief that the free market can address people’s concerns, and that that difference in belief is structured by race, identity is going to continue to matter. A lot of the issues that we think about as being sort of non-identity based issues, like the economy, actually have incredible racial overtones to the way people talk about them. So, welfare has long been considered an issue that has these racial over or undertones for how people make their decisions and people vastly overestimate the number of black families on welfare. And, research over many years now has shown that attitudes about African Americans, racial attitudes, predict support for things like welfare, things like the death penalty, spending on crime, stuff like this.  So we know that how people think about race continues to shape how they think about really important issues, so it seems unlikely to me that this is really going to go anywhere.

BELL: Dr. Mackenzie Israel-Trummel is assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. Mackenzie, thank you so much for joining us today.

ISRAEL-TRUMMEL: Thank you so much for having me.