Political Behavior

, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 187–207 | Cite as

Phenotypic Preference in Mexican Migrants: Evidence from a Random Household Survey

  • Rosario Aguilar
  • D. Alex Hughes
  • Micah Gell-RedmanEmail author
Original Paper


Does pre-existing preference based on skin tone, facial features, and other observable characteristics, i.e., phenotypic preference, affect immigrant voters’ support for political candidates competing in their countries of origin? Do these preferences change as migrants’ tenure in their host society increases? These questions are important for ethnic and racial politics in general, and particularly for the sizable foreign-born population in the United States, which includes 11 million Mexicans. Using a unique, random sample of foreign-born Mexicans in San Diego County, we employ a voting experiment to test the impact of skin tone and phenotype on vote choice among first generation immigrants. Our design allows us to distinguish responses to different phenotypic cues by exposing respondents to European, mestizo, and indigenous looking candidates competing in a hypothetical Mexican election. Migrants showed higher support for the Indigenous candidate, and evaluated the European and Mestizo candidates as more ideologically conservative. As migrants’ time in the United States increases, the preference for indigenous features gives way to a preference for whiteness, which we interpret as evidence of first generation migrants adopting the dominant racial ideology of the United States. While ethnic distinctions have long been viewed as a key component of voting behavior, our research demonstrates that, even within a single ethnicity, racial differences may have profound impacts on the evaluation of and support for electoral candidates. This study contributes to the research on race and political behavior in comparative perspective, as well as the political consequences of migration.


Immigrant incorporation Candidate selection Phenotypic prejudice Stereotypes Racial politics Voting behavior 



In addition to the funders mentioned above, we also acknowledge the support of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. The project could not have been carried out without the efforts of Enrico Marcelli, Allison Van Vooren, Wayne Cornelius, and all of the students who participated in the 2013–2014 round of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program. We thank Seth Hill, Ricardo Ramirez, Tom Wong, Will Terry, and seminar participants at the 2014 MPSA, APSA, and PRIEC meetings for helpful comments. The standard disclaimer applies.

This work was supported by Grants from the AVINA Foundation and the University of Arizona’s Borders Program, whom the authors gratefully acknowledge. Replication materials are available at


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CIDE, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, ACMexicoMexico
  2. 2.School of InformationUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA
  3. 3.Department of International Affairs and Department of Health Policy & ManagementUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA

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