During the campaign season we took a look at a few campaigns that actively used race and ethnic stereotypes as part of their strategy on the road to Washington, DC. There were undocumented workers slipping across poorly guarded borders to steal American jobs and infect the country with drug-related crime. We faced Islamic terrorists who flaunted their hatred of the US right in the face of Ground Zero. The President himself was often a target, being caricatured as everyone from Che Guevara to Adolf Hitler to a turban-wearing Muslim, to an extra from Amos and Andy. One week out from Election Day, how did they do? And does anyone out there think that using these tactics had any effect on who showed up to cast votes?
For the purposes of contextualizing the results, we have to note that because this was not a presidential election, turnout is generally lower and can vary more from district to district, state to state. When Barack Obama was running for president, African-Americans showed up in strong numbers, making up 12 percent of the voters that year. They dropped to 10 percent this year. But in races where there was a high-profile race with a strong get-out-the-vote push targeting that community, African-Americans showed up in very high numbers, and in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race at least, they made the difference in the election.
None of the voting experts out there has made a claim that racism toward the President brought people to the polls in his defense. But racist campaign ads do coincide in a few cases with stimulating communities against whichever candidate ran or supported those ads. Take for example, Nevada’s senate race. With two weeks left to go before the election, Democrat incumbent Harry Reid looked like he would be sent home; Tea Party-affiliated GOP candidate Sharron Angle looked to be 11 points ahead. By the time the dust settled Reid wound up taking 50 percent of the vote to Angle’s 45 percent, and people started asking why the polling was so inaccurate. For one, there may have been some bad sampling—if “random” people aren’t really random for some reason, the expectations will be out of whack. But Latino Decisions had a slightly different explanation: pollsters don’t count Latino voters accurately. Gary Seguera and Matt Baretto wrote:
[Pollsters] select precincts for specific reasons, including a precinct that has a history of even division between the parties, socially diverse precincts, and others selected by virtue of being deemed particularly informative. This is not an unreasonable method for making outcome predictions, but it in no way guarantees a generally accurate reflection of the overall electorate in the sample. Evenly divided or socially diverse precincts are not the modal circumstances of most minority voters. Voters living in those precincts are not “representative.”
Moreover, many polls were not conducted in Spanish, or primarily used land lines, not mobile phones. When looking at the exit polls in Nevada, the vote among Latino voters was clear—90 percent voted for Reid. In the lead-up to November 2, the Latino electorate was told in no uncertain terms not to vote, and this may have led to them feeling energized about making sure they went to their precincts.
Contrast this with the Louisiana senate race, another one in which undocumented workers were shown more than once in campaign advertising from the GOP candidate in what was arguably one of the most offensive ads all year. Latinos did not show up in big numbers, but non-Hispanic whites did, carrying the incumbent David Vitter to a landslide victory. Perhaps more than racist imagery is needed to stimulate a minority group into voting in large numbers. Angle’s campaign ran on many issues that are anti-Latino: making English an official language, giving local law enforcement the right to determine citizenship of anyone they want to detain, “crackdowns” on flushing undocumented workers out of businesses and putting stiff penalities on the books even for landlords, and denying emergency access to health care. Latinos didn’t see any of these policies advocated by Vitter in Louisiana, so there was no commensurate battle cry to defend against them.
Arab-Americans, meanwhile, are not considered a strong voting block in the United States, although some experts argue that as a group they currently favor the Democratic Party and have misgivings about both parties’ stances on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. While images of Muslims and terrorists pervaded much of the conversation around this election cycle, other than vague proclamations about national security, Arab-Americans weren’t targeted by people campaigning for elected office. It will be interesting at least to see if, when 2012 is upon us, if racism regarding people of Middle Eastern descent will be more prevalent. I also wonder if the GOP will push as hard in a national election against the Latino vote. After all, it was only a few years ago when George Bush himself was proposing a guest worker program and a path to citizenship instead of stronger fencing.