Political ideology, skin tone, and the psychology of candidate evaluations

Amy E. Lerman, Katherine T. McCABE, Meredith L. Sadin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


In this paper, we examine the role of political ideology in shaping black voters' evaluations of political candidates' race and skin tone. Our findings challenge simplistic notions of black preference for descriptive representation. Instead, we argue that race matters to how black Americans evaluate candidates for political office, but that it does so in combination with both candidates' skin tone and voters' ideology. Specifically, our data from a set of randomized experiments show that black conservative Democrats, relative to their more liberal copartisans, express a stronger preference for black candidates relative to white counterparts and prefer darker-skinned candidates relative to lighter-skinned ones. In exploring this result, we argue that conservative black Democrats, who are liberal economically but more socially conservative, use skin tone as a heuristic to help determine which candidate is most likely to match their party-atypical but race-typical political preferences. Thus, despite being less likely to support affirmative action policies, black conservatives are actually more prone to using race and skin tone heuristics in their evaluations of candidates for political office. These findings are substantively significant. As black voters have become much more ideologically diverse, their preferences with respect to candidate race and skin tone may have greater electoral consequences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-90
Number of pages38
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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