How to Inspire the Next Generation: Social Scientists Examine Motivation among Minority Groups to Run for Office

November 8, 2022 - Emily Jodway

It’s a phrase heard often this time of year: “Your vote matters.” But the words ring true, and now more than ever we are seeing the emergence of an increasingly diverse pool of political candidates, because for some, voting isn’t enough. There is an impassioned rise in the number of minority candidates throwing their hats into the political ring. these individuals are stepping up to fight and push for legislation as a voice for those who may not have one. 

Dr. Eric Gonzalez Juenke and his team of fellow social scientists in political science, psychology, LGBTQ+ studies and several other areas are conducting important research in the realm of minority politics. This includes studying candidates who are running for office, their motivations, and their support networks encouraging them to step up and run. 

“This is important work because we are seeing a growing number of racial, ethnic and gender minority candidates running for office over the last decade,” Juenke said. “We are looking at their motivations to run, what happens when they do run, and things like how white voters behave when they’re given a minority candidate where traditionally they have not been on the ballot.”

Juenke is working in this particular area with a team of undergraduate students to code local candidates and determine their demographic makeup. This data collection is a grassroots project for the team, as the state of Michigan does not publicly report this information for voters to see. 

“We’re working to provide the state a snapshot of what their choices look like, what a Michigan candidate profile looks like,” Juenke explains. “And we’re doing it the old-fashioned way, by looking the candidates up, reading stories about them, garnering information from their websites.”

What Juenke and his team have found so far tends to track similarly with national data. Despite Michigan being a near-even split of male-female population, women are still very underrepresented on the ballot. Along party lines, the split presents itself a bit differently, with the Democratic party splitting 40/60 women to men and the Republican party trending much lower. This data makes it easy for the team to recognize that there is still work to be done on this partisan imbalance. 

“In our broader work, we are really trying to push both parties to recruit and support more minority candidates, so we really focus heavily on the recruitment component. The parties themselves play a big role in training and support and identifying candidates to run for these offices,” said Juenke. 

So far, the demographic makeup of those running for office tends to match up with the general demographic of the area they are running in. This can be one reason that certain candidates are motivated to run for office, by recognizing the unique position they have to rally those in their fellow demographic to their cause. 

“When more young people start to hold office, they are able to mobilize younger voters in a way that their politicians can’t,” Juenke said. “It is certainly the case that when Black and Latino people and women run for office, they’re able to mobilize voters in those shared demographics in ways that others might not be able to.”

However, many barriers exist before these individuals can run in the first place. One such barrier is that area’s partisan networks, which Juenke frequently refers to as ‘gatekeepers’ or barriers for those considering running in an area in which they may not receive as much support. Partisan networks are made up of individuals in a city or county that are heavily involved at the local and state levels in each party. Delegates from these networks have a large hand in determining candidates in an upcoming election, making the path toward competing in an election that much harder for minority individuals. 

“We are seeing more and more that if racial and ethnic minority candidates run for office, they can win, despite the deep sexism and racism in this country,” Juenke said. “They’re just not going to have the support of the parties or local networks in a lot of these races.”

Despite these barriers, Juenke and his team are identifying different pathways from the desire to the actual action running for office. Several candidate training programs exist and are actively looking to support women and other minority candidates in their efforts to run for office. One such group is Michigan State’s own Michigan Political Leadership Program, which is run by the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research in the College of Social Science. 

Juenke describes these bipartisan groups as areas where ‘ambition meets opportunity’ and individuals can turn their aspirations of involvement in politics into a reality. These programs offer training and assistance for candidates in developing strategy, building a donor network, and better understanding public policy. 

“We are finding that these training programs work in weird ways,” Juenke said. “For some, it helps them decide that running for office isn’t for them. For others, it can help them become more strategic in how and where they decide to run. The path to success might take a little longer, but they become more educated and strategic in their race and are supported by party leaders working within the program.”

Juenke and his team have discovered that through these groups, candidates are finding a place where they can throw their hats into the ring and be encouraged by party leaders. Despite this help, the path will continue to prove more difficult for minority candidates without the support of their local partisan networks.

“This is one audience that we are trying to affect with our research- these gatekeepers who are telling women and minority candidates that they can’t win,” Juenke explained. “Because they can win, and they need the support of these gatekeepers running both parties and need to be supported and recruited.”

“I do think we are seeing changes on both the Republican and Democratic sides. But it’s just not happening fast enough. My hope is that we encourage more people to run, that they don’t get discouraged, that they go and get the support of these party gatekeepers.”