A common complaint about American’s representative democracy is that it is not representative. Across all levels of office, most elected seats in the US continue to be occupied by white, non-Hispanic men.
By Jay Rover
When the newly-formed Sapient Party announced Steve Cohn and Bobby K. Kalotee as its candidates for New York state governor and Lt. Governor in September this year, few in the party’s cadres actually believed that the two will definitely win the election. The reason for this expectation was because it has happened rarely in the American political history that a three-month campaign has delivered an office to a new political party’s candidates, one of them being from an ethnic minority. Yet Cohn and Kalotee believed that American voters deserved a choice beyond the two dominant political parties. And rightly so.
Kalotee, an Indian American, is a former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Nassau County, former national chairman of the All American Political Party, ex-vice chairman of New York state’s Independence Party Committee and served as national executive director of the Independence Party of America. Steve Cohn is a respected attorney with close links with minority and communities of color. The very democratic spirit of the two candidates earned them both admiration and some following.
The numerical strength and large campaign funds of their opponents did not dampen the spirit and determination of Cohn and Kalotee as they spearheaded their relatively small campaigns in New York’s many ethnic enclaves. And they proved that their strategy was working. They needed 15,000 signatures to put their names on the ballot. They surprised their critics by getting 100,000 signatures and have their names on the ballot.
“Democracy is a privilege and this comes with a responsibility. To maintain this right we have duty to elect our representatives who understand the democracy and the freedom of speech. So let’s go and vote on the Sapient party line, Row-H,” said Kalotee in a Facebook page message to his supporters hours before voting.
“You can vote ROW H no matter what party you are registered with and it doesn’t matter where in New York State you live. There will be a different text message with a photo every hour until polls close. Bobby suggests that you use those messages to text to your friends and family to get the vote out,” he said.
The Sapient Party actively used social media, and quite successfully, to garner support in ethnic, minority and communities of color. How far the limited enthusiasm for the new party will translate into vote will be known today. Cohn/Kalotee may emerge victorious or defeated in today’s ballot will be significant for American democracy. But more significant will be the addition of this new diversity to the American democracy because in a field dominated by the majority ruling class, the rise of a minority leadership from a party that has its roots in the minority and communities of color, especially the South Asian community, is a bigger event than its possible defeat at the ballot.
The Sapient Party is a welcome addition to the diversity of American democracy. The party’s rise is a manifestation of growing frustration of minorities and communities of color with the Republicans and Democratic parties’ political bureaucracy which offers little political space to the ethnic minorities.
The role of candidates
Missing from this story, however, was the role candidates themselves play in determining the outcome of elections. Are there fewer black elected officials, for example, because they are running and losing, or because they aren’t running in the first place?
But when Latinos did run for office, they won just as often as their white counterparts – even in districts where most voters were white. My own analysis of candidates running for local office in Louisiana comes to similar conclusions: once black candidates decided to run, they were equally likely to win office.
So the answer to the question of why we have so few racial and ethnic elected officials winning office is that we have few racial and ethnic minority candidates running for office.
Why don’t minorities run?
What influences their decision to run? For one, we can look to the recent research by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox , who point to important psychological barriers: often minority candidates (racial/ethnic and gender) perceive themselves to be less qualified and therefore less electable than those who have the benefit of prior representation – white, non-Hispanic men.
Recent analysis of first- and second-generation immigrant candidates by Tyler Reny from the University of Washington and myself corroborates this conclusion – even then candidates of color are equally qualified (as measured by education, prior experience, and resources), they see themselves as less likely to win than white candidates.
Second, strategic candidates consider the past. Have other Latino, black, Asian candidates run for and won this office? Research has confirmed that the initial hurdle is indeed the highest.
After the first attempts, it becomes easier for additional minorities to run for office. Between 2000 and 2010, the likelihood of a black candidate running in Louisiana was almost five times greater in jurisdictions where a black candidate had run before than in jurisdictions where it would be the first black candidacy.
In addition, black incumbents are re-elected more than 60% of the time. Thus, in part this is a chicken and egg problem – more minorities will run when more minorities have run.
Last, but not least, is the role political parties play in the recruitment of racial/ethnic minority candidates. Across all minority groups, individuals run because they are asked.
How often do the Republican and Democratic nominating committees reach out to candidates of color?
To date, very little empirical work on this question has been available for analysis, although anecdotal evidence suggests that both parties are very interested in identifying “diverse” candidates.
The GOP’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” lays out their strategic plan to recruit “the highest-quality candidates with the greatest potential for leadership and make certain that we are actively engaging women and minorities in our efforts.” The Democratic Party has long attracted a more diverse candidate pool, but has also publicly ramped up efforts to recruit candidates of color.
Breaking the barriers
Combatting these psychological and structural barriers has spurred a number of candidate recruitment and training organizations, particularly for candidates of color – for example, the New American Leaders Project, One America, Emerge America.
America is becoming more diverse, and citizens are demanding their representative government keep up. As populations shift and America moves closer to being majority-minority, we should expect these candidates to see themselves as more electable, and see more qualified candidates emerge.
Every election year provides a new opportunity to witness this shift. On November 4, 2014, a record 100 black candidates will be on the ballot in statewide and congressional races.
Latinos are running for top offices in 42 states. And Asian Americans are seeking 10 statewide offices. While we are far from the goal of candidates of color running in line with their population size, we are on the road to getting there.
Paru Shah is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Her research focuses on race and politics, urban politics and public policy within an American context.
This article first appeared in The Conversation. Click here to go to the original.