White Woman, Black Man: How Big Is Ballot Box Bias? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

White Lies

The Pew Research Center has a new poll that seeks to determine if the American public would be willing to elect a woman president. On its surface, one might argue that the results are encouraging...especially when compared to similar polling conducted many years prior. A recent Gallup poll indicates that voters are even more likely to elect a black man as their president. While I am encouraged with this apparent progress, I have my own suspicions as to the accuracy of this type of polling data. I'll explain those concerns after some excerpts from both articles.

From The Pew Research Center:

When evaluating Sen. Hillary Clinton's 2008 prospects, one question remains inescapable: Are voters ready to elect a female president? On one level, the question would appear to be settled. In February, Gallup found 88% saying they would vote for a well-qualified woman for president. Contrast this with public opinion in 1969, the year Clinton graduated from Wellesley College. At that time, just 53% said they would support a well-qualified female presidential candidate.

Patterns of gender support in Senate and gubernatorial races suggest that the strong backing that Mrs. Clinton is getting from women is typical for female Democratic candidates for high office. Whether this will extend to the presidency remains an open question. When voters are asked to resolve the question, 13% said they would be more likely to support a female presidential candidate while 11% said they would be less likely to vote for her. And there was the familiar gender gap in response even to this hypothetical question. By a margin of 19% to 7%, women said they would be more likely, rather than less likely to vote for a woman. Men split evenly on the question.

From The Gallup Poll:

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll updated a question first asked in 1937 about the public's willingness to vote for presidential candidates from a variety of different genders, religions, and other backgrounds. While Americans overwhelmingly say they would vote for a black, woman, Catholic, or Hispanic president, they are less likely to say they would support a Mormon candidate, one who is 72 years old, or one who has been married three times.

The Republican frontrunner, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, is Catholic, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, currently running second in the Democratic nomination trial heats, is black. Americans express little hesitation about putting a person with either of those backgrounds in the White House -- 95% would vote for a Catholic candidate for president and 94% would vote for a black candidate.

The Democratic frontrunner, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, would be the first woman elected president. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans, 88%, say they would vote for a woman for president.

OK, so this data certainly appears to suggest that gender and racial bias is on the wane. I don't disagree with that assumption...but I also doubt the reported numbers would translate to the ballot box.

Why do I think this? Well, partly through experience, partly intuition, and also due to my curiosity with the psychology of human nature. Let me first confess that I haven't done sufficient research to draw any statistically significant conclusions. Nonetheless, I'm a firm believer in observational psychology...simply paying attention to behavioral patterns and the propensity of bias that remains a force in our society.

First, let me share my own experience. Back in 1992, Colorado voters were presented with Amendment 2...an amendment to the state constitution that sought to end the recent advancement of gay rights. The Amendment basically prohibited "all legislative, executive, or judicial action at any level of state or local government designed to protect the status of persons based on their 'homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships'."

Prior to the election, the amendment garnered some national attention but by and large, it was felt that it would not pass...primarily based upon polling data. My own impression was that there was appropriate concern within the gay community but I don't think that many felt the amendment would actually pass. Given the reaction on the night of the election and thereafter, I feel safe to conclude that most gays were shocked that a state known for its live and let live mentality had taken such an abrupt turn.

I don't have the actual numbers but as I recall, early polling indicated the amendment would be handily defeated and even the final polling suggested the amendment would be defeated by a decisive margin. By late election night, it was evident that the amendment would not be defeated...but that it would pass by a significant percentage (53 to 47). So the question is how to understand this discordant outcome. The following analysis is consistent with my own perceptions.

Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said he believes exit polling has been unreliable for the past few elections. He said part of the reason may be that some of the information given to pollsters by voters is untrue because of the "David Duke effect."

That is a reference to the 1991 gubernatorial primary race in Louisiana that featured Edwin Edwards and Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard. Gates said exit polling showed Duke getting a tiny percentage of the vote, but when the ballots were counted, he actually captured 32 percent of the vote.

Gates said people didn't want to appear racist, so they didn't tell pollsters the truth. He also said today people feel like their answers are less anonymous than they used to be, so their responses could be traced back to them. He thought that phenomenon happened with Amendment 2 in 1992.

That ballot measure would have disallowed counties and cities in Colorado from creating their own laws prohibiting discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation. It passed by 6 percentage points.

"In the polling, it looked like it was going to get killed," Gates said. "They felt if they told pollsters they were for it, they'd think they were bigoted."

While two examples do not a conclusion make, they provide a reason for concern if one is Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama. I realize that bias towards gays is clearly larger than bias towards women or blacks...but given the margins of victory seen in recent U.S. elections, a hidden bias of three to five percent could be the difference between electing a Democratic candidate and a Republican successor to George Bush. At stake are the direction of our foreign policy and the resolution of the war in Iraq as well as the balance of power in the Supreme Court and the related social issues.

I hate to be an alarmist, but it would be difficult to persuade me that a three to five percentage point lead by Clinton or Obama (assuming either were the Democratic presidential nominee) in late October would not turn into a narrow GOP victory on election night.

Examples aside, my own observation of human nature suggests that three to five percent of voters would have no problem telling pollsters what most would perceive to be a minor white lie...one that would have the effect of tipping the election to the GOP.

Does anyone doubt that there are three to five percent of voters who harbor misogynist views that would lead them to view a powerful woman as little more than an uppity bitch? Would it be hard to imagine three to five percent of voters thinking to themselves that there isn't a chance in hell that a black man ought to be allowed to hold the highest office in the land?

No doubt this bias could potentially be offset by other bias against potential GOP candidates...McCain is 72...Giuliani is on his third marriage...Romney is a Mormon. Nonetheless, I struggle to imagine that any of these facts would exceed the inherent societal bias towards women and blacks. I hope I'm wrong but if I were I a betting man, I wouldn't place a wager on it.

Finally, when we still have three GOP candidates who believe that they will benefit from stating that they don't believe in evolution, it isn't a stretch to conclude that bias is viewed to be far more than speculation...and if a politician believes as much, you can no doubt bank on it. Soon enough, we'll know for sure...November of 2008 isn't that far away.

Image courtesy of www.defendingthenet.com

Daniel DiRito | May 9, 2007 | 12:45 PM
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