Iowa Results Bring More Identity Questions

The 2016 Iowa presidential caucus results point to growing debates over the importance and influence of identity politics. While Hillary Clinton benefited from at least a nine point gender gap in her success as the first women to win the Iowa caucuses, shared gender identity was far from determinative in caucus results. Similarly, the first Latino candidate to win the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz, has not seen much enthusiasm from Latino voters. In fact, few see him as a typical “Latino” candidate at all. So, what does it mean to be the “woman” or “Latino” candidate?

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes questions from the audience after delivering the keynote address at the Brookings Institution Saban Forum at the Willard Hotel in Washington December 6, 2015. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan - RTX1XGCM

The complexity of these candidates requires the media and political researchers to question the very essence of racial, ethnic and gender identity for this year’s top presidential campaign contenders and their supporters. Will identity influence candidates’ strategy, even though candidates like Ted Cruz do not readily self-identify as Latino? Will identity matter to the voters as much as it did in 2008, when the top two Democratic candidates challenged the status quo of a white, male president? Beyond the energy raised among women and African American voters, the 2008 campaign also included many questions over President Obama’s “Black” identity and questions if or how Clinton would “run as a woman.” So, how does identity influence campaign strategy? In 2016, will identity serve as a mobilizing force or cause concern among voters this year?

In addition, similar to the 2008 campaign, racial/ethnic minority women will be critical to our discussions of race, ethnicity, and gender dynamics in the 2016 campaign. In 2008, racial/ethnic minority women (especially African American women) were questioned about their cross-cutting identities; which would prove more salient for minority women, their gender or racial identity? Where would their allegiances lie when asked to choose between two different candidates with whom they share racial, ethnic, or gender identities? Much academic research assumes that one identity will prove more salient than, or “trump,” another in shaping minority women’s political priorities or behavior. However, some researchers are tackling a more complex analysis that challenges the idea that any one identity “trumps” others; instead, the intersections of multiple identities can create a new and distinct identity dynamic to acknowledge.

In 2016, the Iowa caucus results raise similar questions for minority women to ponder. Granted we can’t gleam too much from the Iowa caucus in terms of voter and candidate demographics, since the Iowa electorate is predominately white. However, the results indicate that the top candidates will surely enable identity to be salient in the campaign. The Republicans have two Latino male candidates among their top two contenders (Cruz and Rubio are both Cuban), while the Democrats have a white woman in the lead. How will this impact candidates’ likelihood of highlighting their ethnic or gender identity? Will candidate strategies align with the goals of both political parties to mobilize women and Latino supporters, in light of the important influence that both groups have demonstrated in the recent presidential elections? The Latino vote is growing in importance, especially in important swing states, and the gender gap in turnout—where women vote at higher rates than men—has persisted since 1980. In my book, The Latino Gender Gap in U.S. Politics (Routledge 2014), I explain that racial and ethnic minority women voters, especially Latinas, serve as the intersection of these political phenomena.

In the 2012 presidential election, the gender gap in support of President Obama was 7 points among whites, 9 points among African Americans, and 11 points among Latinos (in fact, the majority of white women supported Romney). In addition to turning out at higher rates than men (Black women had the highest rate of turnout); minority women were more likely than their male counterparts to support the Democratic presidential candidate. Flash forward to this presidential campaign, where several political candidates are mobilizing the female, Latino, and minority women vote. For example, the Clinton campaign unveiled a “Latina outreach strategy” in November 2015 that works to attract the important Latina vote by employing Latinas to mobilize Latinas in key states. The Clinton campaign also hired Latinas to serve as their National Political Director (Amanda Renteria) and Latino Outreach Director (Lorella Praeli), while Sanders hired an African American female as the campaign’s National Press Secretary (Symone Sanders). The GOP candidates may also be working to appeal to minority women; however, their strategies are not yet apparent.

Another strategy to mobilize voters upon shared identity is to select a VP nominee that represents their community. Two previous examples to appeal to women included Democrats’ selection of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and the Republicans’ selection of Sarah Palin in 2008. This year, there is already energy by Latino Democrats around the idea of Secretary Julian Castro as a Democratic running mate. Among the Republican VP possibilities are two minority women: Governor Nikki Haley or Governor Susana Martinez.

If the Iowa caucus results foreshadow a general election ballot that includes a Latino against a woman, or even a combined ticket of a Latino and a woman or a Latina and a man, Latinas will likely be challenged to answer which identity is most salient to who they support. In reality, however, we know that multiple identities—of voters and candidates—will prove salient in the presidential campaign. For example, the Democratic caucuses in Iowa proved clearly the reality of age and generational divides, where gender appeared to be less salient among young women voters than among older women. Partisanship creates another layered identity, which can prove decisive for voter support.

The Iowa caucus results only renew our questions about the political impact of multiple identities, of which race, ethnicity and gender are only a select few. The 2016 campaign will surely provide many more challenges and unique examples to add to our discussion of identity politics. As we continue this conversation, we can look forward to the potential for diverse candidates to crack the political glass ceiling, as well as recognize the critical role of diverse voters in influencing that success.


Christina Bejarano, assistant professor, political science

Christina E. Bejarano is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas.  Her research and teaching interests are in American politics, in particular the areas of gender, race/ethnicity, and political behavior.  She is particularly interested in studying the conditions under which racial/ethnic minorities and women successfully compete for U.S. electoral office, which is reflected in her book—The Latina Advantage: Gender, Race, and Political Success (University of Texas Press, 2013).  Her work also focuses on how racial/ethnic minorities and women can shape or influence the current electoral environment, which is reflected in her book—The Latino Gender Gap in U.S. Politics (Routledge Press, 2014).  Bejarano currently serves on the editorial board for Politics & Gender Journal.  She is also on the national advisory council for LatinasRepresent, a joint initiative working to increase Latina political leadership and representation.  Bejarano received her Ph.D. and M.A. in political science from the University of Iowa and her B.A. in psychology from the University of North Texas.