Driving a Wedge? Republicans, Immigration, and the Impact of Substantive Appeals on African American Vote Choice

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18HtjS79vEPuTf/input 900012PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919900012Political Research QuarterlyNteta and Rice
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(1) 228 –242
Driving a Wedge? Republicans,
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Immigration, and the Impact of
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919900012
Substantive Appeals on African
American Vote Choice
Tatishe M. Nteta1 and Douglas Rice1
Recently, a number of prominent Republican elites have argued that the economic plight of African Americans is
attributable to undocumented immigration to the United States. Have these arguments concerning the link between
black economic well-being and undocumented immigration become commonplace in the rhetoric of Republican
elites, and if so, does exposure to these appeals impact black vote choice? Employing data from over forty years of
congressional speeches, the campaign speeches and public addresses of President Donald Trump, televised campaign
advertisements from the Wisconsin/Wesleyan Advertising Projects, and a survey experiment embedded in the 2016
Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we find that Republican elected officials have increasingly made substantive
appeals to blacks on the issue of immigration reform, that exposure to this type of substantive appeal leads blacks to
more strongly support a fictional Republican candidate, and that this support is moderated by a respondent’s level
of linked fate. These findings challenge existing scholarship that Republican elites ignore the concerns of the black
community and suggest that Republicans may be using the issue of immigration to drive a wedge in the Democratic
electoral coalition by targeting the Democratic Party’s strongest constituency.
microtargeting, race, immigration, vote choice, and partisanship
Have these messages connecting African American
economic well-being and undocumented immigration—
In recent years, prominent Republicans have pointed to
what we call “substantive appeals”—become common-
immigration as the central cause of African Americans’
place in the rhetoric of Republican leaders? If Republican
economic woes.1 For instance, in a 2014 letter written
elected officials are increasingly making these claims
to former President Barack Obama, sixteen Republican
regarding the impact of undocumented immigration on
members of Congress outlined their opposition to a
the black community, in what venues are these substan-
proposed immigration reform bill and argued that such
tive appeals being made and why? Finally, does expo-
a policy would be “an awful deal for US workers—
sure to these appeals lead African Americans to more
including African American and Hispanic communities
strongly support Republican candidates? There are of
enduring chronically high unemployment.” Echoing
course a number of reasons why one might suspect that
this sentiment, former Senator Jeff Sessions (R, AL) in
Republican elites would fail to make a systematic effort
a 2014 interview said of attempts to pass comprehen-
to appeal to African Americans on the issue of immigra-
sive immigration reform “Undeniably, one of the
tion and that exposure to the messages would have little
groups most hurt economically by unjust immigration
policies are African American citizens.” More recently,
in a 2019 prime-time address, President Donald Trump
1University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA
said of the impact of undocumented immigration that
“[A]ll Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal
Corresponding Author:
migration. It strains public resources and drives down
Tatishe M. Nteta, Department of Political Science and Legal Studies,
University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 414 Thompson Hall, 200 Hicks
jobs and wages. Among those hardest hit are African
Way, Amherst, MA 01003, USA.
Americans and Hispanic Americans.”
Email: nteta@polsci.umass.edu

Nteta and Rice
effect on black vote choice. Most notably, given the
appeals to African Americans by Republican elites.
importance of partisanship in predicting vote choice, the
Importantly, and contrary to expectations associated with
fact that African Americans overwhelmingly identify
the literature on African American partisanship, we find
with the Democratic Party, and the purported negative
that exposure to Republican campaign appeals on the
electoral effects of appealing to African Americans, it is
issue of undocumented immigration leads African
thought to be highly unlikely that Republicans would
Americans to more strongly support Republican candi-
make an appeal to black voters and equally unlikely that
dates making these substantive appeals. Interestingly,
these appeals would sway African Americans’ voting
while partisanship fails to moderate the influence of
preferences (Dawson 1994; Frymer 1999; Philpot 2007;
exposure to substantive appeals, we do find that a respon-
Tate 1993). However, recent work has found that
dent’s sense of linked fate plays an important role in pre-
Republican elites increasingly do appeal to “persuad-
dicting whether exposure to a substantive appeal
able partisans” on a range of issues (Hillygus and
influences black support for our fictional Republican
Shields [2008] 2014). Given blacks’ historical opposi-
congressional candidate. Here we discover that African
tion to undocumented immigration coupled with the
Americans who exhibit lower levels of linked fate are
Democratic Party’s expressed support for liberal immi-
more likely to express support for the fictional Republican
gration policies, African Americans may be an attractive
candidate making a substantive appeal.
target for Republicans who seek to court the Democratic
We take these results as evidence that challenges the
Party’s most loyal constituency (Carter 2019; Dawson
conventional wisdom that Republican candidates
1994; Hillygus and Shields [2008] 2014; Jeong et al.
ignore the concerns of the black community across all
2011; Nteta 2013; Tate 1993; Tichenor 2002).
policy domains; our results suggest that Republicans
These competing interpretations concerning the inci-
may be using the issue of immigration to drive a wedge
dence and influence of substantive appeals made by
in the Democratic electoral coalition by targeting the
Republicans both appear plausible, but which one better
Democratic Party’s strongest constituency. Our results
captures the activities of Republican elites and the impact
also contradict a consistent finding in the literature on
of these appeals on the electoral behavior of African
race and partisanship; that African Americans are not
Americans? To adjudicate between these two perspec-
only resistant to overtures made by the Republican
tives, we rely on a number of data sources. First, we
Party but that these overtures have no impact on black
establish where and when Republicans and Democrats
vote choice (Fairdosi and Rogowski 2015; Fauntroy
have made substantive appeals to African Americans on
2007; Philpot 2007).
immigration. To do so, we analyze campaign advertising
data from: multiple years of the University of Wisconsin/
Wesleyan University Advertising Projects, forty-six Theory
years of congressional speeches (1965–2011) on the
Race, Campaigns, and the Republican Party
issue of immigration, and the public speeches of
President Donald Trump (2015–2019). Then, to better
Decades of research on race, partisanship, and political
understand if African Americans are actually swayed by
campaigning have concluded that Republican elected
these appeals, we present the results of an original sur-
officials are hesitant to directly appeal to African
vey experiment embedded in a module of the 2016
American constituencies for fear that such appeals may
Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) in
be viewed in a negative light by their largely white elec-
which African American respondents were exposed to a
toral coalitions (Gillion 2016; Glaser 1996; Mendelberg
substantive appeal on immigration directed at African
2001; Nteta and Schaffner 2013). Perhaps the most nota-
Americans and delivered by a fictitious Republican con-
ble theoretical contribution in this area is found in Paul
gressional candidate.
Frymer’s book Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party
We find that while Republican congressional candi-
Competition in America. Here Frymer (1999, 6) sets out
dates in their televised advertisements fail to make sub-
to explain why two-party competition in the United States
stantive appeals to African Americans on the issue of
leads to the marginalization of African American con-
immigration, Republican members of Congress have
cerns and a dearth of explicit appeals by Republican can-
increasingly made substantive appeals in their public
didates. Frymer’s argument begins by asserting that
speeches. In addition, we find that President Donald
African Americans and whites hold diametrically distinct
Trump, since the beginning of his 2016 presidential cam-
policy interests, with black interests primarily defined by
paign, has consistently made substantive appeals to
concerns regarding racial equality while white policy
African Americans when speaking on the issue of undoc-
interests reflect a more diverse set of policy concerns (for
umented immigration. Taken together, these studies
opposing viewpoint, see...

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