Bernard Fraga talks in a Tufts podcast about the complex causes of the election turnout gap between minority and white voters
As America gets closer to the 2020 presidential election, everyone wants to know, “Who will run?” But there’s another important question to ask: “Who will turn out to vote?” There’s a gap in voter turnout between white people and people of color—a gap that has an impact on election outcomes and on our democracy. So where does this turnout gap come from? Who votes, who doesn’t vote, and why?
Indiana University’s Bernard Fraga wrestles with these questions in his new book, The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America (Cambridge university Press). In this episode of Tell Me More, Fraga explores the historical roots of these disparities and argues that it’s up to politicians, parties, and us to fix them.
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
As America gets closer to the 2020 presidential election, everyone wants to know, “Who will run?” But there’s another important question to ask: “Who will turn out to vote?” There’s a gap in voter turnout between white people and people of color—a gap that has an impact on election outcomes, and on our democracy. So where does this turnout gap come from? Who votes, who doesn’t vote, and why?
Indiana University’s Bernard Fraga wrestles with these questions in his new book, The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America. Here, in a conversation with Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies Brian Schaffner, Fraga explores the historical roots of these disparities and argues that it’s up to politicians, parties, and us to fix them. Let’s listen in.
BRIAN SCHAFFNER: Thanks for being with us, Bernard.
BERNARD FRAGA: Thank you for having me.
SCHAFFNER: So, Bernard, we go back a ways—so I guess I’ve probably known you for the entirety of the time you’ve been working on this book. How I’ve described it to other people is it’s sort of now immediately the authoritative source on turnout and race in American politics. I think this is the very first place anyone who’s serious about this subject would send a student or anyone who wants to know more about this. I’m excited that we get to talk to you a little bit about this because I think you probably know more about this subject at this point than anyone—not to flatter you too much.
FRAGA: Thank you.
SCHAFFNER: Yeah. Maybe you could start a bit by talking about the title, which is The Turnout Gap. I think this is a concept that is nice in its simplicity, but I think it’s also important in terms of different ways in which one might think about race and turnout. And so maybe you could talk a little bit about what is the turnout gap, and how do these turnout gaps matter in American elections?
FRAGA: So in the book I look at—and thank you for saying what you said about the book. I certainly hope that people look at it as a source of information, but also a source of political science insight. Trying to bring a little bit of what we often study, and what we often look at in political science, to real-world politics. This is certainly a book intended for political scientists, but I also hope to find an audience in the general public who’s interested in disparities in turnout.
And that’s really the topic of the book: disparities, specifically, looking at racial and ethnic differences in who turns out to vote. We have known for a long time that racial and ethnic minority groups, including African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, turn out at lower rates than the non-Hispanic white population, and that’s what I examine in the book: Why? Why do we see those differences? What causes them? How persistent have these differences been over time?
So the difference in voter turnout between, let’s say, whites and African Americans is one example of a turnout gap, the black-white turnout gap. The difference between whites and Latinos is the Latino-white turnout gap. So together, the turnout gap is kind of the minority-white voter turnout rate differential. The way of thinking about the motivation is, what is that and how do we close it? How do we deal with it? What produces it?
SCHAFFNER: So, not to get too much into the weeds, but I think it’s useful to think a little bit about, or talk a little bit about, this notion of turnout rates, because when people talk about turnout, they often use different kinds of statistics. And sometimes we say like, oh, African Americans were 10 percent of the electorate, which is different from saying, “What percentage of African Americans voted?”
And I think a real challenge in talking about the turnout gap and turnout rates is that getting the denominator right. What percentage of African Americans could have voted? We kind of know what percentage did; it’s harder to know what percentage could have. And I think one of the great things about your book is you really do a really diligent job of trying to get that denominator right.
Can you talk a little bit about the challenges when you’re trying to calculate the turnout rate for racial groups?
FRAGA: Sure. So, I think you’re exactly right that the question of the denominator in the turnout calculation is critically important. So, of course, votes win elections. The number of people voting is what matters. But when we think about studying differences in who votes and who doesn’t across groups, we need a common understanding of how many people could have voted. As you mentioned, we use things like the number of adults who are voting age, or, in this case, critically important for the book is the number of citizen voting-age adults. That accounts for things like Latinos less likely to be citizens than whites or African Americans, and the same for Asian Americans.
So I spent a lot of time working on that denominator. Again, not just the people who voted, but the people who could have voted. So I used census data to determine that. The U.S. Census Bureau provides very detailed estimates about the number of people who are eighteen or over in the country each year—the Population Estimates Program.
They also provide information about the number of citizens based on the American Community Survey. So I combined those two sources of information to, say, at each state—so national, then state, then Congressional district, and even county level: How many Latinos who could voted are there? How many African Americans who could have voted are there? How many whites? How many Asians? Et cetera.
That allows for a fair comparison of the number, then, who vote across these different jurisdictions. It allows us to understand differences in their rate of participation, which might reflect contextual factors or electoral factors beyond just the number of people who could have voted.
SCHAFFNER: So, a big part of this book is not just documenting the turnout gap, but trying to explain why we see the turnout gap. I want to get to what you think is the primary reason for the turnout gap. But I also want to address what I think is the knee-jerk response one gets when they are made aware of the turnout gap, which is that this is voter suppression laws, basically, causing this gap.
In your book, I think you do a really careful job of describing the political science research on this hot topic of voter suppression laws. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how voter suppression laws do or do not create the gap, or the extent to which those laws are responsible for the gap, and maybe how we should think about those laws more generally.
FRAGA: So, there’s a lot of public attention, and for good reason, on contemporary policies that have been characterized as harming or preventing minority voters from exercising the franchise. I think this includes voter identification laws, but also cuts to early voting, felon disenfranchisement, and a whole host of other policies that states have implemented and, I would say, Democrats especially have accused of being attempts to suppress minority voting.
Now, the first thing I want to start off with—and that’s what I start off with in the chapter discussing these policies—is that we have ample evidence from political science research and also from the legal community—as in, federal courts have ruled that these policies are often passed with nefarious intent, with the attempt, with “surgical precision,” of reducing African-American voting, especially in Southern states with a history of using different policies to suppress voting.
So, at the outset, that’s the point: we know these policies are intended in some sense, at least occasionally, to suppress minority voting. But when we look at the factors that influence who turns out to vote, I focus more on the contextual forces related to the size of the minority population within a jurisdiction.
I find that in places where minorities are a larger share of the potential electorate, then minority turnout is higher, and in places where they’re a lower share of the electorate, the turnout is lower. So that is a bigger explanatory variable for the turnout gap than vote suppression, than policies that seem to be designed to target minority voters, but just aren’t as effective as we think.
And I think that’s an important insight for two reasons. One is because it suggests that the power of the vote—when mobilization actually happens—can overcome these kind of obstacles, these very real obstacles that exist and prevent people from voting.
But the other thing is that when certain groups advocate for these restrictions and they say, these are necessary to prevent certain groups from voting, they don’t really work as intended. So, why try? Why pass policies that might be seen as discriminatory, if you’re trying to discriminate, but they don’t work? So just don’t try in the first place.
This isn’t what causes voting or voting differentials. It’s not what causes the turnout gap, but it’s also not making it worse. So, it’s not effective except as a barrier that is best-case scenario an annoyance and worst-case scenario is preventing other people, not disproportionally minority, but maybe young voters, older voters, people of lower socioeconomic status, from participating. Why do that in the first place?
SCHAFFNER: So, as you said, the main place where you see this gap shrink is places where minorities have more electoral influence, or where they have the potential for more electoral influence. So, you can imagine a couple of different stories for why that’s the case, and one is the old idea about efficacy, and that voters are going to participate more when they think that their participation will matter.
And another story is a mobilization story, which is that when there’s a bloc of voters that have more potential to swing an election, campaigns’ candidates will basically do more to get those people—appeal to that group more, they’ll do more to get them to the polls. Is it either or, is it a little of both? Can you talk a little bit more about what you think is going on there?
FRAGA: So that’s one of the puzzles that really motivated the project. The literature on race and voter turnout has really been in search of—the political science literature—kind of a silver bullet: the one thing—the one weird trick—that will lead to a reduction of disparities in voter turnout. And what I find in the book is there’s not really one weird trick. It’s a combination of factors.
And there’s two reasons for that. One of them is something that is probably theoretical, which is that your sense of efficacy is enhanced when you’re mobilized. And when people are trying to convince you to turn out to vote, they do so by appealing to your sense of efficacy, to saying, “Your vote is important.” So these things are wrapped up into the same strategy. When people feel that their vote matters, they’re more likely to vote, and campaigns know that, and then that’s the people that they reach out to.
The second reason is kind of a more methodological, or practical, reason, which is the fact that these two forces, efficacy and mobilization, happen in the same places. That’s because of the theoretical reasons that I mentioned before, but also because, as I find, in places where there’s a large population of a single racial or ethnic group, there’s more community resources in those places for that group, politicians notice and start paying attention to that group, and the candidates themselves are drawn from that group, or more likely to be anyway.
So the point is, it’s very difficult to disentangle, either theoretically or methodologically, the forces that make you feel like your vote matters versus the forces that are pushing you to actually mobilize and turn out in the first place. And so I kind of in the book say it’s both of these. I think mobilization matters a little bit more than maybe we thought it did before, but it’s probably both factors working together is where you see the strongest reductions in the turnout gap.
SCHAFFNER: So you mentioned earlier that you want this book to have a big impact on contemporary politics, have a broader impact than just the academic community, so naturally I’m going to now take the book and try to apply it to some of what’s going on in current politics.
So I want to start by talking about another way in which I see your book is making a contribution, and it’s against this trope about “demographics are destiny,” this notion that the increasing diversity of the American population means that, eventually, sometime in the next few decades, Democrats are just going to become the dominant party because look at all these—the minority population is growing, and therefore Democrats will gain electoral success.
Can you talk about how your book engages with that “demographics are destiny” argument that’s been put out there by others?
FRAGA: Sure. The core of the “demographics are destiny” argument is that we’ve become much more diverse as a nation in terms of race and ethnicity, at least by the measures we use today. In 1965, we were something like 15 percent non-white in the United States, in terms of the whole population, and by 2020, the projection for the census is something like 40 percent. So it’s a tremendous shift in the lifetime of most Americans—a big change in our country. And we already see this in that the Millennial or the Gen Z populations, both of them are majority-minority. So this transition’s happening no matter what.
And many have looked at that and said, “Well, this is going to change politics.” And it will, and it already has in many ways, but the way they think it’s going to change politics is that the groups that are growing are disproportionately Democratic-leaning in their partisan preferences, and so therefore the Democrats are the party of the future.
Now, I think there’s a countervailing force to this “demographics are destiny,” which is polarization. At the same time that demographic change has happened, we’ve seen racial polarization of partisanship where whites have become substantially more Republican. And despite the fact that the nation is becoming more diverse, and maybe 40 percent minority by 2020, whites are still the majority by far, and will be the plurality group for generations to come.
So the point is that a party that—if the parties split on race, then the party that’s catering to white voters will still be dominant. And I think that’s exactly what we saw in 2016 in many ways, which is that the appeals that Donald Trump made—he admitted to white working-class voters that felt left behind, rural voters especially. Many Democratic pundits and political scientists even said there’s no way that can win because the demographics of the nation just aren’t conducive to it. But they were. They absolutely were, in a very polarized, racially polarized electorate.
So to me—I add this third part of the story, which is turnout, which is the fact that we have a demographic shift going on, but the increase in the minority population is disproportionately among very low-turnout groups: Asian Americans and Latinos. Latinos are the largest minority group in the country; Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the country. So, these two groups, where turnout rates are as much as 30 percentage points lower than the turnout of rate of whites, that’s the demographic change we’re seeing.
So that means the voting population is lagging far behind the demographic shift that we’re seeing otherwise. And when you combine that with polarization, it means that demographics aren’t destiny, that it’s really a lot of open territory for parties if they’re not mobilizing and if they’re polarizing on the basis of race.
SCHAFFNER: So that’s a great explanation of what’s going on, and I think that then leads to the next question, which is: After the 2016 election and those dynamics you explained were borne out, I think there’s been a debate within the Democratic Party and people who think about what the Democratic Party should be doing after they lost this surprising election to Trump.
And I think there’s this debate about, “Should the Democratic Party be focusing more on mobilizing minority voters, or should they be focusing more on winning back these white, working-class voters that the New York Times likes to write profiles about or whatever that left the party for Trump in 2016?” Based on all of the work that you’ve done understanding the racial gaps in turnout and what you’ve worked on in general, what would your view of that tradeoff be?
FRAGA: Well, that’s not just the million-dollar question, that’s the hundred-million-dollar question, because we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on both mobilization and what we would call persuasion, which is persuading—especially white voters—to shift back to the Democratic Party. It’s tough, right? It’s tough to make that tradeoff.
As we just discussed, demographically, whites are still a majority of the potential electorate, and the clear majority of the voters. So most election outcomes are still really the result of white voters making choices, and that’s why you don’t see the mobilization of minority groups.
But I think that when you’re talking about the parties as they stand right now, and you’re talking about the Democrats especially losing ground with white voters, every effort might be made to shore up losses with those white voting populations. But the bottom line is the Democratic coalition is about—in 2020, it might be about 50/50 minority and white. So, the idea is if you’re going to ignore mobilizing one half of your coalition in favor of, instead, trying to persuade some people who are the other half, that’s going to be trouble.
So to me the best solution is, of course, both, right? Do both of these things, mobilize and try and persuade. But it certainly means that some part of the electoral story is going to be mobilization. Some part of it going to have to be just turning out the core constituencies that already lean towards the Democratic Party.
And I think for Republicans, they’ve taken this strategy to heart as well, where Donald Trump’s strategy wasn’t persuade people, necessarily, it was more, “I’m going to mobilize and rally the base.” I think that’s going to be his strategy in 2020 as well—it’s going to be, “I’m rallying my base”—around the issues that he talked about in the 2016 campaign. Building a wall, right? Other policies on trade, right? These are the core policies that he knows will mobilize his base. So if the Democrats want to win at least some of what they’re going to do is try and mobilize their base, too.
SCHAFFNER: I guess a general question’s just: What can candidates and parties do to increase mobilization of minority groups? And I guess you could think specifically about if this is the way Democrats should be thinking going forward to 2020, what would you change about the campaign that Democrats would run in 2020 as compared to, say, 2016, when you saw actually increases in turnout among some racial groups, but decreases among other racial groups?
FRAGA: Yeah, so in terms of national elections, where the electorate is kind of fixed in the way that we think about the demographic distribution of groups, most swing states—at least as conventionally conceived, like the “Blue Wall” states, for example—are very heavily white. So some of the Democrats’ message is going to be trying to persuade those white voters, and mobilizing them with issues they care about. That’s certainly true.
But I think that when you think about new opportunities for the Democrats, you look at states like Texas, where Beto O’Rourke nearly won—a state that went nine points for Trump, and we saw that as a relatively narrow victory, Beto lost by a much smaller margin than that. So the bottom line is that a state like Texas is basically won or lost for Democrats based on the strength of Latino voting. So I think we have to look real hard and say, well, how much investment is being put into Latino voters in places like Texas?
I think in a state like Florida, you see an example the other way, which is that the Obama campaign made significant investments in mobilizing African Americans through a community-based mobilization strategy. And I think the Clinton campaign, we have some evidence that they didn’t do that in the same way, that it was a much more top-down instead of a bottom-up mobilization strategy. So, to me, I think we see there another path to mobilizing, even in places where there’s been long-standing targeting, which is a bottom-up approach.
And the examples of that in 2018, I think, were Stacey Abrams—her campaign, engaging African-American voters. Now, she was African American herself, so one argument people have made is, well, you need minority candidates like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julián Castro—and they might help some, but it’s really the strategies they use, and if they’re using strategies that are embedded in the communities and talking about the issues they care about I think, that’s where you see the gains—that’s where you’ll see the turnout gap really closing. The question is whether the candidates have an incentive to do that.
SCHAFFNER: So, going a little past thinking about strategy, I guess it’s also important to think about, of course, beyond which party wins and loses elections, but what do these turnout gaps mean more generally for our democratic system? What are the consequences? If we don’t shrink these gaps, or get rid of these gaps, what does this mean for American democracy ten years down the road, twenty years down the road?
FRAGA: Well, I think that, beyond who wins and who loses, it’s about having elections that represent the will of the people, and I think when you don’t have that—no matter who wins or loses—in terms of which party, the outcomes are bad. I think that some of the divisiveness and divisions that you see right now—the polarization—is a product one of the parties, especially, feeling that this, at least—one of the parties especially feeling that the strategy to win is basically to keep people from voting, that the only way they can win is by certain people not turning out, because that seems to be what was successful in 2016 and a few elections before that, like 2014 and maybe 2010.
That’s dangerous, because when we start talking about outcomes that are not seen as representative of all the people, and then one party disproportionately winning those outcomes, then the other party says, “Well, this is illegitimate.” And that’s where you see democratic breakdown, that’s where you see a breakdown in democratic values—small D democratic values—is when people view the outcomes as illegitimate: illegitimate if too many people vote, and then illegitimate if not enough people vote. That’s the problem, and that, I think, is exacerbated by the turnout gap because of the polarization we see in who votes and who doesn’t.
And that’s a fear I have going forward, quite frankly, is that without real action to reduce the turnout gap, we’re going to see increased calls of “Not my president,” on both sides, no matter who wins, because one side will say, “Well, the election was rigged,” and the other side will say, “Well, the election was rigged the other way.”
As I said earlier in our conversation, the literature on race and politics—race and voter turnout, especially—has been in search of a kind of silver bullet, something that—you change this one thing and it will shift the turnout gap in a major way. And the existing explanation when I started graduate school was that it took a candidate—it took having co-ethnic candidates. And that made a lot of sense, we saw Obama elected and black turnout was higher than it had been in a long time, so I ran with that explanation.
And a lot of my early work in graduate school was trying to say, “Well, what if there was a Latino candidate? Would that mean higher Latino turnout? What if there was an Asian candidate? Would that mean higher Asian turnout?” And in the process of doing that work, of doing the research and then doing the quantitative analyses with very fine-grain data, I found, really, the opposite of a lot of those conclusions. I found candidates don’t really correlate with having higher or lower turnout. Black turnout was a lot lower than we thought it was with survey data, for a lot of reasons, including over-reporting.
So that core finding motivated, and probably turned into, the book project, because it said the story’s more complicated than we thought. It’s a mix of a lot of different factors. So while that finding I had figured out in more like 2012—that motivated the work that I did subsequently, which led to the book. So really this idea that candidates are not the solution, despite what everyone thought, despite what I thought when I started off and spent years working on under this belief, led to this book.
SCHAFFNER: Well, I guess that’s what can be so rewarding about the research process—is our failed hypotheses can lead to newer and more interesting projects. Thank you so much for this book, thank you for visiting us at Tufts, and thanks for this conversation.
FRAGA: Thank you very much.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller, who also edited this episode. 5 to 9 Productions recorded the interview. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, the Africana Center, JumboVote, the Political Science Department, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and the Urban and Environmental Policy & Planning Department. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.