New Book by Charlton McIlwain Shows How Race-Based Messages Influence Political Campaigns

Black, Latino, and White candidates make race-based appeals in advertisements at roughly the same rates in campaigns in which their opponents are of a different race, according to research by New York University’s Charlton McIlwain and North Central College’s Stephen Caliendo. However,their findings, which appear in the new book, Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns (Temple University Press), also show that nearly 70 percent of political ads by Black and Latino office seekers focus on their own candidacies while more than 90 percent of ads run by White candidates attack their opponents.

Through an analysis of political advertisements and news coverage, along with results of laboratory experiments, Race Appeal offers insights into the way race-based messages influence campaigns. It includes: a chapter on immigration and the 2006 election; case studies on news coverage of the campaigns of Harold Ford, Jr., Mel Martinez, and Artur Davis; and an analysis of the 2008 presidential election.

The authors analyzed 56 variables in nearly 800 televised political advertisements from U.S. House and Senate campaigns between 1970 and 2006 that included at least one candidate of color. Among the examined variables were: whether or not the candidate or his or her opponent appeared in the ad; what stereotypes were invoked (e.g., “liberal,” “unqualified,” “uncaring”); and what public policy issues were mentioned—crime, welfare, and Social Security were among the 29 issues examined.

The authors found that 82 percent of all ads run by White candidates against Black and Latino candidates included some form of race-based appeal. The percentage of ads from Black and Latino candidates invoking race – 78 percent – is statistically on par with their White political rivals. However, McIlwain and Caliendo observed a clear distinction between ads by Whites and those by Blacks and Latinos. They found that 69 percent of ads by Black and Latino office seekers focused on their candidacies while 92 percent of ads by White candidates included attacks on their opponents.

Among Race Appeal’s other findings are:

·         There is little evidence that reporters “racialize” their coverage of Black and Latino candidates. McIlwain and Caliendo find that while one-quarter of a sample of newspaper stories covering campaigns written since 1990 include a reference to a candidate’s race, the researchers conclude that “racial framing” in these stories is minimal when other factors, such as story placement, headline reference, story length, and other story attributes are taken into account.

·         White candidates most commonly seek to portray their Black opponents as “untrustworthy,” “criminal,” “taking advantage of the system,” and “lazy”;

·         Playing the “race card” is effective in advertising if voters don’t see it as an overt racial appeal. The authors’ experiments show that White voters gave less support to both White and Black candidates whom they saw as making race-based appeals. However, the standard for “playing the race card” may vary between candidates—White voters saw Black candidates as making a racial appeal even when only those candidates’ faces appeared in ads.

McIlwain is an associate professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He is the author of When Death Goes Pop: Death, Media and the Remaking of Community and Death in Black and White: Death, Ritual and Family Ecology. Caliendo is a professor of political science at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Inequality in America: Race, Poverty and Fulfilling Democracy’s Promise and Teachers Matter: The Trouble with Leaving Political Education to the Coaches. McIlwain and Caliendo are co-editors of The Routledge Companion to Race and Ethnicity.

(Photo: Charlton McIlwain.)