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Clayton Becker interviews Barnard Political Science Professor Michael Miller

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

An interview with Professor Michael Miller

by Clayton Becker

American Legislatures are far more white and male than the population as a whole. Women make up 51% of the country’s population but only 25% of legislators are women. African Americans and Hispanic Americans are 13% and 17% of the population respectively, but only make up 9% and 5% of our legislatures. Moreover, according to a 2015 report from the National Conference of State Legislators, “since 2009, the advances of women and blacks in legislatures have stalled.”

That may have changed slightly in the aftermath of the 2018 midterms, which elected a record number of women and minority congresspersons. However, the fact remains that American legislatures do not reflect the populations which elect them.

Professor Michael G. Miller of Barnard College is working on one possible explanation why that might be the case: Party chairs at the county level don’t think that minority candidates can win elections. Along with two colleagues, Professor Miller is conducting a nationwide study of these party chairs to see how these local party mandarins penalize minority candidates and how much that affects whether people will make their first forays into electoral politics. Our Director of Operations, Clayton Becker, recently sat down with Professor Miller to ask him about his work. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that interview.

So first off, what is the book about and what brought you to this particular project?

The book we’re working on right now, it doesn’t have an actual title yet, but the title that we started with was “Kingmakers,” right? Because we became interested in this idea of local partisans making decisions that rippled out throughout the political system. So, both parties are organized down to the county level and there’s a county chairman in place in almost every county in America. And those people are responsible for going to people in their community and encouraging them to run for that–make that first political campaign. So we recognized that if the people, the chairs, the people who are responsible for encouraging citizens to become candidates, if they were putting their thumb on the scale in a way that even they weren’t in touch with, if they had latent bias, be it, you know, race or gender or something else, class, that we would get candidates that they prefer because those are the people that get encouraged.

So if they’re the only people, if it ends up then that the candidate pool is disproportionately white and male, then you’re going to have candidates who are disproportionately white and male, and victors who are disproportionately real white and male. And that goes all the way up into Congress and the Senate and even the Presidency. And so we set out to really capture the extent to which these chairs did harbor these biases and found that candidates of color are significantly–that the electoral chances of candidates of color are significantly downgraded by chairs of both parties, but we didn’t observe effects for women.

So you’ve mentioned in the past that there aren’t really differentiating factors based on political affiliation, but are there differences in other respects?

The effects are completely immune to county context for Republicans. It’s a completely flat line. The effect does diminish for Democrats as a county becomes less white, but the point estimate is negative for the vast majority of American counties, something like 90%. I would have to look at the exact number. But suffice it to say that even for Democrats, this effect lingers regardless of the demographics of the county.

And do you think that that’s just a latent bias effect or do you think it has more to do with concerns of electability as we always hear about?

So one of the things that once we got these results back, we started talking about them, and decided to develop this into a book instead of just one paper. So, we’ve been going all over the country and actually showing these results, to the party chairs and asking them to explain, and we mostly get a story about electability. And to the extent that chairs will, we’ll talk about this. And the story, will be something like, well, “I’m not sure if voters would…” It’s a straight up identity politics story. So it’s pretty difficult for them to say something like, “well, our county is overwhelmingly white. I just don’t know how voters would react to a black candidate.” But, we also have observed a dynamic in which we are having typically very frank and thoughtful and candid conversations with Southern chairs. And Northern chairs–Northern Republicans specifically are much more likely to say things to deny the importance of racism, to say things like they don’t see race. And so we have observed, qualitatively, a really interesting dichotomy between Northern and Southern Republicans.

So politicians in the South in particular, are more open about why they’re choosing white candidates?

It’s not that, I would also not call county chairs “politicians.”

Sure. Fair enough.

It’s that they are more prepared and thoughtful about the role of race in their community, so they’re, they’re aware of it. If you ask, a southern Republican chair, you know, how do you explain this finding that we got, you’re going to get a thoughtful answer that spans 50 years of history in the town and they will tell you that race has been an issue not only in the community but also in the Republican Party and that they are conscious of it and actively trying to fix it. Some of them expressed frustration about their own inability to do better. But in the North, we have been accused of in infusing the research with our own liberal professor agenda, things like that. We have not seen that in the South. And so it seems like it is a dynamic that is not prevalent in the South and actually really seems to be isolated around one particular state. That I can’t name.

Fair enough. Demographically speaking, I know you said that it’s flat in terms of Republicans, but on the Democratic side, does it being say a majority-minority county, have any effects…like for Los Angeles County or Prince George’s County, Maryland?

So this paper is on my website, the top paper on my website. If you go all the way down to, let’s see page 21, you can see exactly what the effects are for Democratic chairs. So right here is where there is no penalty. So, you’ll see that it has to be 30% black before the estimate for Democratic Chairs crosses zero. Well, there’s not very many counties in America that are 30% black. We have the figure in the paper somewhere; it’s something like 10% of American counties or something like that. But look at this line for Republicans, you could not devise a flatter curve. It’s literally flat.

Absolutely. So, basically the takeaway from that then is the county needs to be overwhelmingly African American before these party chairs will select an African American candidate? Or before they even become slightly more likely to do so?

The outcome is who they think can win. So their judgment where they would not downgrade a black candidate–they would stop downgrading a black candidate at that 30% mark. Right.

That’s pretty scary actually.

The experiment that we did in this paper is designed to recover their latent feelings. We didn’t ask them about their overt thoughts.

That’s actually incredibly disheartening.

No downgrades for women though. So that’s the good news.

What do you think is the defining factor there between minority candidates versus women in the downgrading the latency biases? Is it just like historical context or something else?

What our interviews reveal is that particularly in rural areas, what this comes down to is that you’re talking with people who just haven’t had a deep relationship with someone of a different race and that’s what the chairs themselves are telling us. So if you ask them to explain why they don’t think their voters would support a black candidates, they will say something like, “well, we just don’t have African American people here.” Which implies that there is no interpersonal connection, you don’t have that shared lived experience. It’s not true with women. When you observe women run and win you develop different thoughts about their potential candidacies, these chairs are also telling us pretty clearly that they believe that women are actually harder working candidates and so they are making a judgment based on what they’ve observed from women who have run. The point estimate for women is actually positive in our experience. It’s not statistically significant, but it’s positive, which implies that chairs are making a positive judgement about them.

And do you think that’s reflected in the number of women candidates we saw in the last election cycle? Or do you think that’s just an outlier?

I’m not sure that people coming out of the woodwork to run for Congress has anything to do with our results because our people are mainly recruiting for a local races, things like Sheriff and County Commission and State Legislature. People who come out and run for Congress I think very often are not being recruited by those local people. Only some of them are.

So when we talked a little bit earlier at the beginning about this idea that the disproportionate number of white male candidates are coming up because of this like local party chair, bias against them. What effect do you think that has, if any, on the national level races?

The effect is gradual. It’s a bench effect. So, where do you get your congressional candidates from? Usually state legislatures. You get your Senate candidates a lot of the time from the US House. And so if we’re putting white males on our city councils and our county commissions and our state legislatures, then that trickles up, was our theoretical expectation.

And how has that worked out in the results?

The only place can observe any effect is right here in the experiment. And then from the rest of that it’s just kind of extrapolating that recruiting dynamic as a potential cause contributing to the overwhelmingly white male flavor of American legislatures.

So, are lower—I don’t want to say lower status—but state legislatures and county boards, are those even more white and male then Congress or is it about the same?

Depends on the state. There’s actually a wide, wide range on that. But I think if you add up all state legislative seats in America then the demographics look pretty much pretty close to Congress. I think women are doing a little bit better these days after the last election, but they’re pretty close.

So the last thing that I wanted to ask is, do you think there is a way to convince these party chairs or to change this dynamic, where we get more minority candidates, at the lower levels and build a larger bench for a legislative branch that actually looks like America does today?

I don’t know. That’s one of the things we’ve been asking chairs. Because we thought, well maybe just telling them about this is enough, educating them about what’s going on. What the chairs have told us is that, “look, it sounds great to go and recruit candidates of color. I don’t have any.” And that is a real practical problem in many, many rural American counties, particularly in the northern states. Even if they would make concerted efforts to diversify their candidate populations they just, they can’t find folks, they can’t identify folks in their community to run. And so the chairs, many of the chairs are telling us that they really do have a supply problem.

So you’d say then that the base of the problem there, aside from the biases and latency problems and all of that, it’s just there aren’t enough people who want to run for Congress from those communities?

People who want to run for office run for office in general? Yeah. But the chairs go farther and say that there’s just not enough people. The literal count of racial minorities is so low in their counties that it’s hard for them to identify potential candidates. Now, from there we could extrapolate things about socioeconomics or whatever. “Are you only looking for certain kind of profession?” But that’s what they’re telling us.

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