Skip to main content

Black Candidates Are Punished for Ambiguous Rhetoric

New research finds studied slipperiness on the issues can help candidates for office—depending on their race.
Then-Senator Barack Obama addresses an audience in Jersey City, New Jersey, on January 9th, 2008.

Then-Senator Barack Obama addresses an audience in Jersey City, New Jersey, on January 9th, 2008.

Election season is fast approaching, which means many candidates will be trying to have it both ways on divisive issues. It's a sensible strategy. If you can word your public statements in such a way that, say, protectionists and free-traders both think you're on their side, you're home free, right?

Often, yes. But new research reveals that time-tested strategy only works for if you're white.

"Ambiguous rhetoric causes many voters to project their own policy positions onto white candidates," writes a research team led by Boston University political scientist Spencer Piston, "but this is not true for black candidates."

The results help explain the "continued black electoral underrepresentation in the 21st century," the researchers write in the Journal of Politics. It's tougher to get elected if a time-honored technique is unavailable to you.

The study featured 526 Americans recruited by Survey Sampling International. They completed two surveys two weeks apart that were designed to appear as separate studies.

In the first, they reported their positions on a number of political issues. The researchers focused on their attitudes toward the environment, since that issue isn't strongly linked to race.

They also completed a survey designed to measure their degree of racial prejudice by describing their perception of "work ethic and intelligence for both blacks and whites."

For the second survey, participants were asked to choose between two fictional candidates for Congress: Democrat Sam Larson and Republican Tom McCann. They viewed photos of the two men, and read statements describing their stands on various issues.

These pages were manipulated in two ways. Larson was portrayed as either a black or white man, and his statement about the environment was precise ("We need to increase fines on companies that pollute our air and water"), ambiguous ("Like many Americans, I am proud of America's natural beauty"), or non-existent.

Participants were asked which candidate they prefer ("neither" was an option), and to rate their attitude toward each on a one-to-100 "feeling thermometer."

The results: White Larson received his highest level of support—nearly 60 percent—when his statement on the environment was ambiguous. But, strikingly, "support for the black version of Larson is 20 percentage points lower than for the white version of the otherwise identical candidate."

A replication study, which took place two years later—during the 2016 election campaign—produced identical results.

A white male candidate "reaps a benefit from pursuing a strategy of ambiguity in his statements about the environment," the researchers conclude. "When the candidate is a black male, however, there is no such benefit." Indeed, "among racially prejudiced subjects, support for the black male candidate actually decreases when he makes an ambiguous statement."

"Candidates can use ambiguous rhetoric to defuse attacks from opponents ... and provide themselves with wiggle room for post-election position change," Piston and his colleagues note. But for "black candidates competing for the votes of non-black citizens," this strategy is apparently counterproductive.

Barack Obama was well aware of the danger of playing into one pernicious stereotype; he consistently kept his cool to avoid the role of the angry black man. But for people of color who want to follow in his footsteps, this research points to another trap to be mindful of.

Don't get enraged, black candidates, but don't equivocate too much either. Either way, you'll pay for it at the polls.