Collective Descriptive Representation and Black Voter Mobilization in 2008

Abstract

Although record turnout in the 2008 election is primarily credited to Obama’s candidacy, did the presence of black elected officials in the state legislature play a role in mobilizing black voters? Did patterns of mobilization differ among black voters? Using the 2008 American National Election Study that I merged with contextual data, I find that disengaged black voters in states with a greater number of black state legislators, or what I refer to as collective descriptive representation, were more likely to be contacted, and as a result, were more likely to vote. On the other hand, neither collective descriptive representation nor being contacted influenced the political behavior of engaged black voters. This suggests that in 2008, descriptive representation and experiencing contact mattered more for mobilizing disengaged black voters than for mobilizing engaged black voters.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    The term “collective descriptive representation” was first used in Rocha et al. (2010). That said, earlier studies explore how a group of black elected officials influence political outcomes (see Browning et al. 1984).

  2. 2.

    This study finds that the symbolic effects of descriptive representation on black political participation are long-lasting. But, others argue that the effects are short-term at best (Spence and McClerking 2010; Spence et al. 2009), while others find no relationship between symbolic representation and black voter turnout (Tate 2003).

  3. 3.

    Previous studies explore how mobilization efforts have a different effect depending on voter type (Claibourn and Martin 2012; Hillygus 2005; Parry et al 2008), and while DeFrancesco Soto and Merolla (2006) examine this relationship among Latinos, no research to date explores this relationship among blacks.

  4. 4.

    Another way to think about this argument is that blacks comprise a critical part of the electoral constituency of black elected officials (Grose 2011; Grose et al. 2010).

  5. 5.

    The logic of my argument suggests that collective descriptive representation will be negatively related to white voters being contacted, but will be unimportant for whether engaged white voters are contacted, and this is indeed true. Results are available in the online appendix.

  6. 6.

    Some may be worried that the voter suppression tactics that minorities experienced in 2008 (McClain and Stewart 2010) made them less likely to vote once contacted. This concern does not affect my research for a couple of reasons. First, nearly all of the contacting groups that targeted black voters represented the interests of the Democratic Party (Panagopoulous and Francia 2009; Philpot et al. 2009), not the interests of the Republican Party. Second, if contacting groups provided black voters with false information about voting, then this means I may be underestimating the effect of contact on the turnout of black voters.

  7. 7.

    My argument begs the following question: why would contacting groups ever target engaged black voters if it does not influence their likelihood of voting? One reason is that contacting groups may want to influence the vote choice of engaged black voters more so than the voter turnout of such individuals. Another reason is that contacting groups may be asking engaged black voters for campaign contributions. A final reason is that contacting groups may want engaged black voters to indirectly mobilize other voters (Rosenstone and Hansen 2003).

  8. 8.

    When looking at non-nested models, namely an AIC and BIC (see Long 1997), I find no significant difference between the effect of black state population and collective descriptive representation on whether black voters are contacted. Thus, while I provide a theoretical distinction between collective descriptive representation and black state population, I cannot provide an empirical distinction between the two. Results are available in the online appendix.

  9. 9.

    I used 2006 data for collective descriptive representation since black state legislators may be contacting blacks about campaigns in 2007 for the 2008 election cycle. The correlation between collective descriptive representation in 2006 and 2008 is .99, so the results would not change if I used 2008 data.

  10. 10.

    The url for this source is as follows: www.presidentelect.org.

  11. 11.

    This variable may also be thought of as an empirical measure of the Obama Effect.

  12. 12.

    Amer (2008) has data on black US House members from 1870 to 2007. However, it also shows whether a black US House member is currently serving in the district, which is the data I used for this project.

  13. 13.

    I included the data on ballot measures in the turnout model only.

  14. 14.

    Ideally, I would be able to measure the frequency of contact, but the ANES lacks such data.

  15. 15.

    I do not have data on whether black state legislators actually did the contacting, so this measure is at best a proxy for whether black state legislators were actually the ones targeting black voters.

  16. 16.

    See Brambor et al (2006) for a fuller discussion of how to use and interpret interaction terms.

  17. 17.

    See Table 6 for an explanation of coding for all explanatory variables.

  18. 18.

    Unlike most studies of voter turnout, I do not control for income. The rationale is that income data are missing for 30 respondents, or roughly five percent of my sample. Given that I am studying how state context shapes black political behavior, I decided to omit income to maximize my sample size. It is worth noting that when I control for income it lacks statistical significance.

  19. 19.

    Because identical variables shape whether blacks are contacted and whether blacks vote, I included many of the same variables in both statistical models. If I had only included relevant variables in the first model (i.e. the contacted model), then I would have committed omitted variable bias, one of the worst regression assumptions to violate since it leads to both bias and inefficiency (Gujurati 1995). I chose to be redundant in model specification as opposed to violating knowingly a key regression assumption.

  20. 20.

    I thought that multicollinearity might account for this odd finding, but a mean variance inflation factor of 2 suggests that multicollinearity does not explain this result.

  21. 21.

    I still believe that contacting groups were driven by a desire to win elections and not to alleviate the bias that characterizes the contacting process. Previous research supports my stance (Goldstein and Ridout 2002, p. 22).

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Tom Carsey, Vincent Hutchings, Rene Rocha, Caroline Tolbert, and anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Christopher J. Clark.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 5 and 6.

Table 5 States ranked by collective descriptive representation, 2006
Table 6 Descriptive statistics for explanatory variables (blacks only)

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Clark, C.J. Collective Descriptive Representation and Black Voter Mobilization in 2008. Polit Behav 36, 315–333 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-013-9237-1

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Keywords

  • Descriptive representation
  • Obama
  • Black voter mobilization
  • Voter turnout
  • 2008 election