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Strategic Discrimination

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 September 2020


Why are women and people of color under-represented in U.S. politics? I offer a new explanation: strategic discrimination. Strategic discrimination occurs when an individual hesitates to support a candidate out of concern that others will object to the candidate’s identity. In a series of three experiments, I find that strategic discrimination exists, it matters for real-world politics, and it can be hard to overcome. The first experiment shows that Americans consider white male candidates more electable than equally qualified Black and white women, and to a lesser extent, Black men. These results are strongly intersectional, with Black women rated less electable than either Black men or white women. The second experiment demonstrates that anti-Trump voters weigh Democratic candidates’ racial and gender identities when deciding who is most capable of beating Donald Trump in 2020. The third experiment finds that while some messages intended to combat strategic discrimination have no effect, diverse candidates can increase their perceived electability by showing that they have a path to victory. I conclude by arguing that strategic discrimination is especially salient in contemporary U.S. politics due to three parallel trends: increasing diversity among candidates, growing awareness of sexism and racism, and high levels of political polarization.

Special Section: The Glass Ceiling/Gender
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the author precedes the References section.


Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:

This research was supported by the MIT Political Science Department; the MIT Political Experiments Research Lab, and the 2019 Carrie Chapman Catt Prize for Research on Women and Politics (Honorable Mention). Blair Read provided superb research assistance, with logistical help from Paula Kreutzer and Z. Y. Chris Peng. Adam Berinsky, Pavielle Haines, Danny Hidalgo, Rich Nielsen, Spencer Piston, Jamil Scott, Tagart Sobotka, Erin Tolley, Srdjan Vucetic, and Erika Weisz contributed valuable feedback, as did audiences at APSA 2019, the University of Toronto Political Science Department, the Public Law Centre at the University of Ottawa, and six anonymous reviewers. For moral support and encouragement, the author would like to thank Taylor Boas, Adam Bonica, Christine Cheng, Dara Kay Cohen, Amelia Hoover Green, Vivek Krishnamurthy, Eduardo Moncada, Sarah Parkinson, Maia Pelleg, Agustin Rayo, Julia Sweeney, and Michael Weintraub.


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