Assistant Professor of Politics and Government Kerri Milita co-published a study in The Journal of Politics titled “Clear as Black and White: the Effects of Ambiguous Rhetoric Depend on Candidate Race.”

The article finds that being vague on policy positions works for white but not black candidates. Milita’s study notes that while campaign advisors and political scientists have long acknowledged the benefits of ambiguous position taking, these benefits do not extend to black candidates facing non-black voters.

“When a white candidate makes vague statements, many of these voters project their own policy positions onto the candidate, increasing support for the candidate,” the article states. “But they are less likely to extend black candidates the same courtesy.”

The study tests the claims with an original two-wave survey experiment varying the race of male candidates on a national sample of non-black voters. They find that ambiguity boosts support for white male candidates but not for black male candidates.

In fact, black male candidates who make ambiguous statements are actually punished for doing so by racially prejudiced voters. These results clarify limits on the utility of the electoral strategy of ambiguity and identify a key condition under which prejudice shapes voter behavior.