Race, Gender, Bigotry, and the Presidential Primary

An argument one can occasionally hear being made runs like this: a woman or a black man would enter the general election for the Presidency at a disadvantage due to (supposedly) widespread misogyny and racism. Under this logic, of the top three, being a white male, John Edwards is presented as the best candidate. This argument was made in a particularly irksome troll diary the other day, and a little digging uncovers it elsewhere on the internets.

There are many, and many good, reasons to support John Edwards, as I do. This, however, is not one of them, for the simple reasons that it’s morally reprehensible, that the candidate disdains it and that, lastly, it’s not supported by actual polling data.

Details over the fold.

(Originally posted at Daily Kos; the HTML rendering here is somewhat messed up, so you have to, alas, scroll to see the tables)

Bigotry is a fact of American life and in American politics. It is an affliction both to its victims and its practitioners. Most certainly, it’s not a phenomenon confined to our place and time. Over a century ago, Victor Hugo wrote this:

Superstition, bigotry and prejudice, ghosts though they are, cling tenaciously to life; they are shades armed with tooth and claw. They must be grappled with unceasingly, for it is a fateful part of human destiny that it is condemned to wage perpetual war against ghosts.

The essence of bigotry is dehumanization and depersonalization; the Other becomes objectified and categorized. This, as Hugo says, we must struggle against, certainly as Progressives. It is morally poisonous to base a self-willed choice, such as a preference in a primary, on surrender to the presumed worst instincts of others.

Notably, this is not a moral capitulation John Edwards endorses. Asked about precisely this during the YouTube debate, he replied:

“Anyone who won’t vote for Hillary because she’s a woman or Obama because he’s black, don’t bother voting for me. I don’t want your vote.”

Most importantly, the perception that Americans have reservations about the idea of a woman or a person of color in the Oval Office is severely overstated. To be sure, there are people who hold these views; there just aren’t enough of them to make that much of a difference, and several other factors present higher obstacles to a candidate from a disfavored group. The Pew Center conducted a poll in the first half of August to get to the bottom of this perception. It shows that there are quite a few traits inherent in a candidate’s persona that will disincent a slice of the electorate from voting for them.









“Regardless of the specific candidates who are running for president, we’d like to know how you generally feel about some different traits. First, would you be more likely or less likely to support a candidate for president who [see below], or wouldn’t this matter to you? How about if a candidate [see below]?”















































































More likely Less Likely Wouldn’t matter Trait differential Combined positive/neutral
Is a woman 15 12 72 + 3 87
Is black 9 6 84 + 3 93
Is Hispanic 9 15 75 – 6 84
Is Mormon 5 25 66 – 20 71
Is Muslim 3 45 49 – 42 52
Is an Evangelical Christian 19 16 60 + 3 79
Does not believe in God 3 61 34 – 58 37
Is Catholic 13 7 79 + 6 92
Is Jewish 9 11 79 – 2 88


Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey conducted by Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas. Aug. 1-18, 2007. N=3,002 adults nationwide. MoE ± 2.

There are some methodological issues with this poll, chief among them that there is no explicit control group – it is implicit in the poll’s design that a white, Protestant, heterosexual male polls at the baseline 100%, which is probably why there is no control question on whether those traits would make anyone more or less likely to vote for someone possessed of those attributes – and what is known as the interviewer effect.

The interviewer effect is a well-established variable in the social sciences, and is defined in laymen’s terms as the influence on responses of being asked questions by a live person. In face to face or phone surveys, respondents tend to give answers seen as socially desirable due to a measurable impulse to gain the approval of, or to not offend, the person asking the questions. Given the odium attached to admitting racial or gender or religious bias, it’s likely that these results don’t give a completely numerically accurate picture of actual attitudes as far as candidate race and gender are concerned.

There is, however, an inadvertent control variable embedded in these poll results, and that is attitudes towards Catholics, given that the last Democratic nominee, John Kerry, was Catholic. Based on the (untested) assumption that bias against Catholics would affect Kerry’s results to the same degree as bias against women and minorities would affect those of Obama, Clinton and others, comparisons can be made on the effect of inherent traits on comparative electability. Let’s take another look at that data, also including Hispanics on account of Bill Richardson.




















































More likely Less Likely Wouldn’t matter Trait differential Combined positive/neutral Kerry differential
Is a woman 15 12 72 + 3 87 – 5
Is black 9 6 84 + 3 93 + 1
Is Hispanic 9 15 75 – 6 84 – 8
Is Catholic 13 7 79 + 6 92 -/-


From that, we can assert that John Kerry started out with a pool of 92% of Americans from which to draw votes (the poll does not screen out registered or likely voters, and for the purposes of this analysis, that pool is assumed to consist of individuals more likely to vote for a candidate or who say a given trait makes no difference in their voting preference). A black candidate very slightly outperforms that number with 93%, within the margin of error; a woman at 87% underperforms it, just barely outside the margin. A Hispanic at 84% significantly underperforms, which is frankly something of a surprise and not, as far as I am aware, a subject of public discussion.

Also of note is that belonging to a specific demographic group doesn’t necessarily only create a burden for a candidate. For both women and blacks, the balance between those who say they’re less likely and those more likely to vote for such a candidate is actually slightly positive at 3%, meaning that for both, the percentage of respondents more likely to vote for such  candidate is higher than that of those who will not. This balance is more positive for Catholics, slightly less so for Evangelicals, slightly negative for Jews, slightly more so for Hispanics, and rises into double digits for Mormons, Muslims and Atheists.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. First, gender, religion and ethnicity have a definable impact on electability, as do presumably many other factors not a part of this survey, such as military service, socio-economic status, educational attainment, sexual orientation and so on. However, and notably, those factors do not diminish the pool of persuadable voters below the 50%+1 threshold for any of our top candidates. Equally, all of these generic factors – being a woman, an African-American, and a Hispanic – leave a larger pool of voters than does being an Evangelical Christian, respectively, 87%, 93%, and 84% versus 79%, let alone being a Mormon at 71%, a Muslim at 52% or an atheist at 37%. Clearly, there is bias in the American electorate, even strong bias; it seems, however, that there is something of a perception gap in the kommentariat as to where that bias is directed.

It’s my belief that John Edwards is the best general election candidate, based on a combination of his persona and his issues platform, and to a far lesser degree on the fact that the last three Democratic Presidents were Southerners. I have significant reservations about Senator Clinton, arising in part from her staggering negatives; it’s not apparent to me how one can get oneself elected when 45% or so of the electorate say they would never consider voting for one. This, simply put, has never happened. As far as Senator Obama is concerned, there are some legitimate concerns to be voiced about his experience and leadership skills at this moment in his career, though conversely, I think he will be President one day.

However, none of these weaknesses, as I personally perceive them, of the other candidates stem directly from their race or gender. Obama is as electable as John Kerry, even slightly more so; Hillary, slightly less, but her being a woman does not, based on the hard polling data, preclude her from being elected.

If any of these candidates fail in the general election, it won’t be because they happen to belong to a given socio-demographic group. It will be because of other factors. As you make your primary choices, by all means, consider whichever factors you wish in making that choice; but race and gender shouldn’t be among them.


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    • masslass on September 22, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    polls, people still vote their bigotries.  I’ve
    always voted for the best PERSON.  Everything
    else is just smoke and mirrors.  My dream is that someday before I die we will actually elect the best person for the job, regardless
    of sex, color, religion (or lack thereof).  When JFK crossed that barrier I really thought
    there was some hope for us, but alas, we’re back to these petty distinctions.  So, what I’d
    really like to see is a poll asking:  Will you
    REALLY vote for the best person?

    • pico on September 22, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    a positive differential, and we’ve had only one Catholic make a successful presidential run. 

    One of the groups left out of your chart (but I’ve seen it on others) is gay/lesbian.  They tend to hover around Muslims, but at least they’re finally above atheists, the perennial whipping-boys of this type of poll.

    I’m proud to represent two of the three least electable demographics in the country.  If only I were born in a Muslim family – hat trick!

    • BruceMcF on September 22, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    … there are people for whom race and sex are a negative factor, but whether there are people who are might possibly vote Democratic who are less likely to vote for, in the present situation, a Black male or White female candidate.

    At least here in Ohio, I’m a bit skeptical about that.

    After all, if everyone less likely to vote for a Black male or White female candidate is already a dedicated Republican voter, that’s only a factor in a Republican primary, and has no negative influence on the general election.

    Here in Ohio, now that we have an honest Secretary of State, I reckon that increased turnouts in black voting precincts for Obama and better margins in Southern Ohio for Edwards would pretty much cancel each other out, leaving the question of which is more electable in this key swing state down to policy differences.

    And Hillary is the most vulnerable in Ohio precisely because she faces the risk that the Republicans can cynically wrap NAFTA around her neck … her gender only being a detail in how she became a part of the Clinton White House in the first place.

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