A Natural Experiment of Race-Based and Issue Voting: The 2001 City of Los Angeles Elections

By Abrajano, Marisa A.; Nagler, Jonathan et al. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2005 | Go to article overview

A Natural Experiment of Race-Based and Issue Voting: The 2001 City of Los Angeles Elections


Abrajano, Marisa A., Nagler, Jonathan, Alvarez, R. Michael, Political Research Quarterly


The theory of racially polarized voting suggests that race is a primary determinant of vote choice in elections where a minority candidate is pitted against a white candidate. The spatial model of voting suggests that voters consider the issue positions of candidates and choose the candidate closest to their own positions. The unique context of the 2001 Los Angeles city election allows us to test these two theories. In each of two races in this election, a Latino candidate competed against a white candidate. In one race the white candidate was considered more liberal, while in the other race the Latino candidate was seen as more liberal. This particular ethnic and ideological composition provides us with a natural experimenting which to test the two competing theories. While voter ethnicity mattered, we show that consistent with the spatial model, voters also relied on issues and ideology as factors in their voting choices. By considering the choices voters are making in two different elections, we argue that estimates of the extent of racial voting in previous research may be overstated.

Most research on political behavior has focused on four major theories of voter decisionmaking: sociodemographic characteristics of voters (e.g., Berelson and Lazarsfeld 1944), partisanship (e.g., Campbell et al. 1964), issues and ideology (e.g., Key 1966), and economic conditions (e.g., Key 1966). Much of this literature debates the relative importance of these characteristics, with recent research focusing on issues and economic factors (e.g., Alvarez and Nagler 1995).

In this article we focus on the 2001 Los Angeles citywide general elections. Both the 2001 Los Angeles mayoral and city attorney races presented a unique opportunity for researchers of voting behavior. First, these two simultaneous elections, both for executive-style city government positions, provide more information for studying voter decisionmaking strategies than does a single election; also, by looking at two races we can determine whether voters use the same decision strategies across both races. Both contests were highly contested and high profile: $14.6 million was spent by the mayoral candidates and $4.8 million was spent in the city attorney election.1 Clearly, spending was not equal in these two races, yet the amount spent in the city attorney election is considerable, and these spending figures indicate that both elections were competitive.2 Second, not only were both of these positions open-seat races, but Los Angeles city elections are nonpartisan, and the candidates competing in the general elections were Democrats. Thus, the cue of partisanship was absent from these elections (Schaner and Streb 2002; Squire 1988), as well as its next best substitute, incumbency (Schaffner, Streb, and Wright 2001). This setting gives us the ability to understand how voters decide in this setting.

Another important reason to study the 2001 Los Angeles city elections is that the races featured candidates of different ethnic identities, as a Latino candidate competed against a white for each of the two highest elected offices in city government. The ethnic context of this election produces a natural experiment where two competing theories of voting behavior can be tested.

On one hand, theories of racially polarized voting suggest that race is a primary determinant of vote choice in elections where a minority candidate is pitted against a white candidate. This theory is most relevant given the undertones of racial fear that emerged in the last two weeks of this election. James Hahn, the white mayoral candidate, began broadcasting a television advertisement with an image of a crack pipe held to a name followed by a grainy picture of the Latino mayoral candidate, Antonio Villaratgosa.3 This image refers to a letter written by Villaraigosa, requesting presidential clemency for a convicted cocaine dealer. The advertisement then mentions that the cocaine dealer's father had donated more than $6,000 to Villaraigosa's campaign. …

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