Identifying a Relationship Between Latino Representation in Congress and Trust in Government

By Ricardo Ramirez, Gabriel R. Sanchez, and Shannon Sanchez-Youngmann

Although all eyes will be focused squarely on the race for the white house this year, there are several important races taking place down the ticket that have important implications for the Latino electorate. There are several Latino non-incumbent candidates running for Congress in 2012, with many having legitimate chances to win. You add to this the many Latino incumbents who will be running to retain their seats, and this election could be pivotal for Latino representation in Congress. While future posts closer to the general election will focus on several of the individual races featuring prominent Latino candidates, we discuss the importance of Latino representation in Congress more broadly here. More specifically, drawing from a research paper presented at the recent Midwest Political Science Association meeting, this blog report explores the relationship between Latino representation in Congress and trust in the federal government. Our findings suggest that having more Latinos in Congress leads to positive benefits, including higher levels of trust in government. We believe that this increases the importance of these races, even if the presidential race ends up dominating media coverage and the attention of the public.

Does Descriptive Representation Impact Latino Political Attitudes?

Scholars have been interested in the potential benefits associated with descriptive representation, or in other words, having diversity in political institutions, for some time. While many scholars have approached this from the standpoint of whether Latino elected officials provide better substantive representation than non-Latino representatives, others focus on more in-direct or symbolic benefits. For example, Pantoja and Segura (2003), in their study of Latino elected officials in California and Texas, find that feelings of political alienation significantly diminishes as descriptive representation increases for Latinos. Similarly, utilizing the Latino National Survey (2006), Sanchez and Morin (2011) find that Latino citizens represented by co-ethnic Mayors are less alienated from the political system than those without descriptive representation. In short, the literature in this area suggests that historically disadvantaged groups may derive a positive effect from seeing members of their own communities in positions of power and, in particular, bonds of trust between legislators and their constituents when there is racial/ethnic congruence.

Research Design and Results

Our analysis intends to contribute to this discussion by specifically focusing on whether having a Latino member of Congress has any relationship with trust in government levels among Latino registered voters. To examine this potential relationship, we use data from the 2008 Collaborative Multi-racial Political Study (CMPS).  This telephone survey—conducted between November 9, 2008 and January 5, 2009—is the first multiracial and multilingual survey of registered voters across multiple states and regions in a presidential election. The overall sample (n=4,563)  includes 1,577 completed surveys with Latino respondents.  Furthermore, the Latino sample of the CMPS has tremendous variation by nativity and language use, as 46% of the Latino sample for example chose to conduct the survey in Spanish, and 57% of the sample reports being born in the U.S. This is critical for our efforts of exploring internal variation within the tremendously diverse Latino population.

We matched the race of each respondent with the race of their member of Congress through a congressional district identifier within the data-set. This measure of descriptive representation is our primary explanatory variable, but we also control for a host of other factors in our analysis. For example, because partisan affiliation explains such a wide array of political behavior and voting behavior in particular, we include partisan congruence between the elected official and the respondent as an alternative explanation for variance in trust.

We begin our presentation of results with a brief discussion of the frequencies of our primary explanatory variables. Given that the CMPS sample provides coverage of a large segment of the US electorate, including 92% of all Latino registered voters, we are able to make some assessments regarding the relative descriptive representation levels of each population. We find that 34% of Latinos in our sample have a co-ethnic member of Congress, compared with 44% of African Americans in our sample. This background on the relative rates of descriptive representation are helpful, as they provide some context for our primary inquiry, whether being represented by a descriptive elected official leads to greater trust in government.

Our results indicate that being represented by a co-ethnic member of Congress leads to more positive views of government for Latino registered voters, even when other factors including party congruence are considered. To illustrate the substantive effects of descriptive representation at the congressional level, we conducted post-estimation analyses focused on showing the rise in trust in government with and without descriptive representation while other factors are held constant. As depicted in Figure 1 below, we see that the likelihood of trusting the federal government “most of the time” increases by 4.05% for Latinos. Conversely, trusting the federal government “never at all” decreases by 4.24% for Latinos as one moves from not having descriptive representation to having descriptive representation in Congress. Therefore, the presence of Latinos in Congress has a positive impact on how Latino voters view the federal government more broadly. This is an important finding, as trust in government is a political attitude that impacts political participation and other aspects of political behavior.


In summary, we find that there is a positive relationship between being represented by a co-ethnic member of Congress and trust in the federal government. This is an important finding, as trust in government is a political attitude that impacts political participation and other aspects of political behavior. This suggests that increases in Latino representation in Congress can have important normative consequences for the Latino community, a population whose political salience continues to grow. Consequently, it will be important to follow the prospects of Latino congressional candidates from both parties who can help to contribute to the diversification of the legislative branch of the federal government. Future blog posts will therefore shed some light on how well the parties are cultivating a solid pool of qualified Latino candidates for office and supporting those who are identified as being competitive.

Ricardo Ramirez is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and an expert in Latino political behavior. Gabriel R. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and Research Director for Latino Decisions who has published several articles focused on Latino congressional behavior. Shannon Sanchez-Youngmann is a PhD candidate in Political Science and a Doctoral Fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico.

The commentary of this article reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Decisions.  Latino Decisions and Pacific Market Research, LLC make no representations about the accuracy of the content of the article.


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