How White candidates 'racialize' themselves to win over Hispanic voters: A Q&A with WWU's Rudy Alamillo

Western Washington University Assistant Professor of Political Science Rudy Alamillo recently chatted with Western Today about his field of research, which focuses on how white political candidates are successful (or not) at engaging with Hispanic voters and turning that engagement into votes.

Western Today: Your research focuses on understanding how non-Hispanic White candidates appeal (or don’t appeal) to Hispanic voters. How did you get interested in this field of study?

"As a child, I remember my father being galvanized by George W. Bush in the lead up to the 2000 presidential election. My dad, an immigrant from Mexico, loved that Bush spoke Spanish, presented himself as a cowboy, and spoke of Hispanics in glowing terms, which is not always the case with Republican administrations. Like many immigrants and people of color, race and ethnicity were likely a concern for my dad when thinking about which candidate to support, especially since so few candidates of color run in any given election cycle. There has been some research on the benefits of shared ethnicity between candidates and voters, but very little research on cross-racial appeals as regards non-Hispanic White candidates and Hispanic voters. As my father became more politically engaged, so did I, and this pushed me towards studying political science as an undergraduate.

When I entered graduate school and began looking for a research agenda to build my career around, I knew I wanted to study the kinds of appeals that got my dad and I engaged and active in politics."


WT: You also seek to better understand how White candidates “racialize” themselves to appeal to Hispanic voters. What are some of the most common ways they do this, and do these efforts pay off at the voting booth?

"The most common way White candidates can racialize themselves to appeal to Hispanic voters is by eating a taco, tamale or other Hispanic food during a campaign stop. This is a low-cost strategy on the part of the candidate which offers little reward, but essentially any candidate can do it. 

White candidates who want to put more effort into their appeals can also collect endorsements from Hispanic public officials, which signal to Hispanics that the candidate is supported by prominent members of the community. Another way candidates racialize themselves to appeal to Hispanic voters is running Spanish language advertisements in ethnic newspapers, radio stations, and television networks. While not cheap, this usually requires little of the candidate's time, but allows them to reach out to the broadest amount of voters. These appeals are moderately effective, increasing a candidate's support among Hispanics by as much as 8 percent. My research suggests that the most effective appeals are those that require the most work, as Hispanics, like other minority groups, are able to decipher which efforts require the most effort on the part of the candidate.

When a White candidate demonstrates that they can speak Spanish fluently, like Beto O'Rourke (see photo above) has done throughout this career, this signals to Hispanics that the candidate respects and cares enough about Hispanics to learn their language and communicate with them in their native tongue. Another beneficial strategy that relatively few White candidates can employ is demonstrating Hispanic family connections, such as highlighting a Hispanic spouse or children. Candidates with these connections, like Texas Governor Greg Abbott, can go beyond showing respect to the Hispanic community and actually demonstrate strong familial connections, which remain an important aspect of Hispanic culture. According to my research, candidates who demonstrate Spanish speaking skills or Hispanic family connections can increase their support among Hispanics by as much as 20 percent."


WT: Have there been any very successful and, conversely, unsuccessful racialization efforts in recent U.S. politics that stand out?

"One recent racialization effort that stand out in terms of effectiveness is Beto O'Rourke's victory in the Democratic primary of Texas's 16 district in 2012. O'Rourke, then a relative unknown, managed to upset a 16-year Hispanic incumbent in a district that is more than 80 percent Hispanic. Without his fluent Spanish speaking ability and aggressive Hispanic outreach, O'Rourke would not have been able to win that election and propel himself to the national stage. Another interesting case is that of Greg Abbott, a Republican who became governor of Texas in 2014 with at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Abbott essentially ran two campaigns, one in English which focused on cracking down on immigration and crime, and another in Spanish, which featured his in-laws talking about how Abbott understands and shares Hispanic values. 

When it comes to cases that stand out as failures, as I mentioned earlier, Hispanics can tell when a candidate puts a relatively low amount of effort into racializing. The most prominent example is Gerald Ford attempting to eat a tamale with its corn husk on, but a more recent example is the backlash Hillary Clinton received on social media in 2016 for releasing a list of seven ways she was just like an abuela (grandmother). On the Republican side, at the 2016 Republican National Convention signs were printed reading Hispanics para Trump, which was likely intended to translate as Hispanics for Trump, but actually translates as 'Hispanics stop Trump.'"


WT: The effort to harness the Hispanic vote is always an interesting dynamic, because the prototypical Hispanic voter is religiously conservative but socially and politically leans left. How do you see this dynamic playing out in the upcoming presidential election?

"Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have hoped to attract Hispanic voters based on their socially conservative stances and religious background. Unfortunately for Republicans, the Republican Party's stance on issues like immigration and healthcare has overcome this built-in advantage and pushed Hispanics towards the Democratic Party in large numbers. Given his rhetoric regarding immigrants and Hispanics, many political observers expected Trump to draw a record low number of Hispanic votes, but he actually performed slightly better than Mitt Romney in 2012.

While many Hispanic voters are still foreign-born, native-born Latinos make up around 70 percent of the Hispanic population in the United States. As Hispanic voters become less attached to the immigrant experience, we're increasingly likely to see them vote for Republican candidates who are immigration hardliners like Trump. Based on this trend, I expect to see Trump and future Republican candidates perform better among Hispanics as time goes on."


WT: The other side of the coin in regards to racialization is Hispanic voters seeking to de-racialize themselves to fit into U.S. society. Does your research show that this is occurring more or less in today’s political climate?

"My research suggests that in times of racial threat or hostility, such as in the wake of Trump's election, minorities may seek to disassociate themselves with their racial or ethnic group and identify with the non-Hispanic White majority as a precaution against any potential discrimination. I have a forthcoming paper in Du Bois Review which suggests that for Hispanics, Trump's candidacy served as a kind of litmus test. Hispanics could either chose to stand with their ethnic group and stand against Trump and his policies, or they could adopt the colorblind ideology prevalent among Republicans and de-racialize themselves in an effort to better blend in with non-Hispanic Whites. Given that the societal stigma associated with being an immigrant or Hispanic has likely increased during Trump's first term, I believe we will see a small but noticeable increase in the amount of Hispanics who attempt to de-racialize themselves as a means of self-preservation."


Rudy Alamillo earned his doctorate from the University of California at Riverside and has taught at Western since 2019.  His research has appeared in Politics, Groups, and Identities and Sociology Compass, and has been covered by outlets such as NBC Latino and The Washington Post. He teaches a variety of courses in the American Politics and Public Policy subfield, as well as special courses in Comparative Politics such as the Politics of Mexico.

portrait of Rudy Alamillo