Meredith Sadin
Department of Politics
Princeton University


Ideological Variation in the Effects of Skin Color on Candidate Evaluations with Amy E. Lerman and Katie McCabe. 
Forthcoming in Public Opinion Quarterly (2014).

We detail a set of randomized experiments that 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 candiddates’ skin tone and voters’ ideology. Specifically, our data show that black conservative Democrats, relative to their more liberal co-partisans, 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 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 also substantively significant: black voters have become much more ideologically diverse over time—in the early 1970s, 40 percent of African Americans identified as liberals and less than 10 percent identified as conservatives; by the late 1990s, 17 percent identified as liberals and the same proportion identified as conservatives. As this proportion grows, black conservative voters’ preferences with respect to the race and skin tone of candidates will have electoral consequences. 

Black Voters, Black Candidates: Perceptions of a Tradeoff Between Substantive and Descriptive Representation with Amy E. Lerman. Forthcoming in Political Psychology (2014).

In studying the electoral fortunes of black candidates, scholars have almost exclusively focused on white voters' attitudes. In this paper, we employ a set of randomized experiments and nationally representative survey data to examine how both black and white voters evaluate the ideology of racially diverse candidates. In contrast to previous research, we find mixed and inconsistent evidence that white voters stereotype black candidates as being more liberal than white candidates. However, we find that black voters—particularly those who identify as politically conservative—project their own ideology onto black candidates. These findings have electoral importance because, as we show, vote choice for both blacks and whites is substantially mediated by perceived ideological distance from a candidate. These findings also enable us to better understand the manner in which black voters’ navigate a tradeoff between descriptive and substantive representation.   

Under review

Revise and resubmit at Journal of Politics.

Politicians often highlight how hard their families had it when they were growing up, presumably in the hopes that voters will see them as more supportive of policies that benefit middle- and working-class Americans. What do voters actually infer about a candidate’s policy positions from how a candidate was raised? And what should they infer? We use a nationally-representative candidate evaluation experiment to study how the public perceives politicians raised in more and less affluent families. We then compare these perceptions to data on how lawmakers brought up in different classes actually behave in office. Although voters consistently infer that politicians from less privileged families are more economically progressive, those politicians don’t actually stand out on standard measures of legislative voting. The “Mill Worker’s Son” heuristic, as we call it, is a misleading shortcut, a cue that drives voters—even well-informed ones—to make faulty inferences about candidates’ political priorities. 

In progress

Unconscious Class Consciousness: How Social Class Stereotypes Serve as Heuristics in Candidate Choice and Political Attitudes (Dissertation advised by Martin Gilens, Amy Lerman, Larry Bartels, and Tali Mendelberg)

My dissertation examines the manner in which citizens use stereotypes about a particularly salient social class group – the rich – as a shortcut for political reasoning. Over the past few decades, economic inequality has risen at an alarming rate while class mobility has stagnated. Recent protests against the “top 1%;” the prevalence of class-based rhetoric in the 2012 presidential campaign; and the New York Times declaration that we are in a “New Gilded Age” suggest that class-based groupings have become increasingly salient to citizens. Despite the prevalence of class related discourse, research on citizens’ group-centric class attitudes and their consequences is extremely limited. When research has focused on class, the object of interest has been exclusively the poor, rather than people at the upper end of the income distribution.

Using large-n observational data, online survey experiments, and a large-scale field experiment, I address three questions about class stereotypes and citizens’ political behavior. First, what is the nature of the public’s beliefs about the rich? Second, how are these beliefs consequential for citizens’ voting behavior and policy attitudes? Third, are there specific conditions under which these beliefs are more easily primed or undermined? I argue that sentiments towards the rich are nuanced. Specifically, I find that the American public is ambivalent about the rich – perceiving them as competent, but lacking empathy. I demonstrate that this ambivalence has very real consequences for candidate selection and policy attitudes. 

Campaigning with Class: The Effect of Candidate Social Class on Voter Evaluations

A majority of elected lawmakers come from higher status professions and are wealthier than the voters they represent. Do Americans punish candidates when their class becomes obvious? Or are voters content to elect representatives who are much better off than they are? Using two survey experiments (N=1,721 and N=2,193), I examine the effect of varying a candidate’s social class on voters’ evaluations. I find that voters give a candidate that is currently upper-class a lot of credit, but become ambivalent when they are told he was born to privilege. This effect is mediated by perceptions of a candidate’s empathy. Voters use the “candidate class heuristic” even in the presence of a party cue, but penalize Republicans more than Democrats. I confirm the external validity of the experimental findings by analyzing the relationship between the class backgrounds of legislators who served in Congress from 1999 to 2008 and their vote margins.