Hillary and Obama:  Is America Ready for a Non-White or Female President?”

By Darrell M. West, Brown University


The 2008 U.S. presidential election may turn out to be a historic event.  For the first time in our country’s existence, there is a serious chance voters may elect the nation’s first female or African-American president.  There also are serious contenders who are Latino and Mormon, respectively.  In this report, I look at the changing attitudes of Americans on issues of race, gender, and religion, and how these shifts may affect the presidential candidates.


Historical Attitudes


            Since the 1930s, the Gallup polling organization has asked Americans the question, “if your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be (Jewish, Catholic, Female, Black, atheist, gay, or Mormon), would you vote for that person?”  This is a way to track general views about candidates of various backgrounds regardless of the specific individual. 


Table 1 Voter Willingness to Support Candidates of Various Social Backgrounds

                      1930s    1950s    1970s    1990s

Jewish           46%        -            -          92%

Catholic        60%        -             -          94%    

Female          33%        -            -          92%

Black              -          37%        -          95%

Atheist            -          18%        -          49%

Gay                 -           -           26%     59%

Mormon          -           -           75%     79%


            Table 1 reveals that in the 1930s, Americans were not very open to presidential candidates from non-white male backgrounds.  At that time, only 46 percent of Americans indicated they would vote for a Jewish American, 60 percent said they would support a Catholic for president, and only 33 percent claimed they would support a woman for president.

            In the 1950s, only 37 percent of Americans said they would vote for a black for president and 18 percent indicated they would support an atheist.  And in the 1970s, 26 percent said they would vote for a gay for president and 75 percent indicated they would vote for a Mormon.

            By the 1990s, though, these views had liberalized on most groups.  The numbers saying they would vote for a Jew, Catholic, woman, or black rose to the low to mid-90s.  However, only 49 percent said they would vote for an atheist, 59 percent admitted they would vote for a gay presidential candidate, and 79 percent indicated they would support a Mormon candidate.

            These changes suggest America is more open to candidates of diverse backgrounds, as long as they are not atheist, gay, or Mormon.  Voters openly admit to unwillingness to vote for individuals from these backgrounds, unlike the situation for women or black candidates.

            Of course, these views do not mean there is no prejudice against female and/or African-American candidates.   Voters may say they are willing to vote for a woman, but refuse to do so in the privacy of the ballot box.  Or they may harbor private attitudes that make them unreceptive to a candidate with an unconventional background even if in the abstract, they are willing to say that they would vote for a woman or black.


Bush Fatigue


            After eight years of President George W. Bush, it is likely America will be more open to candidates from diverse backgrounds.  It is not like the white males have been doing such a great job.  Three-quarters of Americans are dissatisfied with the Iraq War.  Many worry about the economy.  Large numbers lack adequate access to health care insurance.  And 71 percent percent believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

            This is a perfect recipe for candidates from different kinds of backgrounds to run well.  In a situation of unhappiness with the status quo, voters may opt for a women, an African-American, a Latino, or a Mormon presidential candidate.  This gives these candidates a much better shot than they ever have had before.


An Open Field of Candidates


            Most presidential candidate fields feature white, male candidates.  While there occasionally have been individuals who ran who had unconventional backgrounds, such as Shirley Chisholm (female African-American), Jesse Jackson (African-American), Pat Schroeder (female), or Carol Mosley-Braun (female African-American), the vast preponderance of American presidential candidates have been white male.

            Of those women or minorities who have sought the presidency, none have been considered a top-tier candidate.  Most have been poorly financed and have not featured the type of broad-based support that gave them a meaningful shot at the presidency.

            In 2008, however, the front-runners for the Democratic nomination are Hillary Clinton (female) and Barack Obama (an African-American).  Both are well-known and likely to be well-funded.  Each has support from across the political spectrum.  Both are serious contenders.

            In addition, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico is running and he is a Latino.  A former member of the Clinton Cabinet, he is bright, articulate, and well-respected.  He furthermore comes from the ranks of state governors, which has been the source of four of the past five American presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush).  Of the presidents from the past 30 years, only George Herbert Walker Bush came from the national position of vice president, as opposed to being a state governor.

            Finally, Republican Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is attempting to make history on the GOP side as that party’s first presidential nominee to be Mormon.  Unlike public attitudes on Jews, Catholics, women, and African-Americans, voters remain reluctant to support a Mormon candidate.  Whereas 92 percent say they would vote for a Jewish candidate and 94 percent claim they would support a Catholic, only 79 percent say they are willing to cast a ballot for a Mormon presidential candidate.  This lingering prejudice may handicap Romney in his contest for the Republican nomination against John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.


The Nomination Calendar


            Although it appears that the 2008 presidential campaign is getting an early start, the Iowa caucuses are less than a year away.  Indeed, in looking at the nomination calendar, there are a number of states that are choosing delegates to the national nominating convention early in 2008.  The first caucus will take place in Iowa on Jan. 14, followed by the Nevada caucus on January 19, the New Hampshire primary on January 22, and the South Carolina primary on January 29.  Other states will follow with caucuses and primaries starting on February 5 and thereafter. 


National versus State Polls


            In an early national poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, Hillary Clinton is the leader for the Democratic nomination with 41 percent of the vote, followed by Barack Obama at 17 percent, and John Edwards at 11 percent.

            These numbers confirm the openness of many Americans either to a female or African-American president.  The willingness of large numbers of voters to say they will support Clinton or Obama, respectively, bodes well for those individuals.

            However, little stock should be placed in national surveys because the nominating process is a sequential process taking place state-by-state.  There is no national nominating process in either party because each state runs its own primary or caucus.             

            A more meaningful indicator of early success are the polls in early states.  There, the polls indicate a more fluid situation.  For example, a Zogby poll of Iowa shows John Edwards in the lead with 27 percent, followed by Barack Obama with 17 percent, Hillary Clinton with 16 percent, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsak with 16 percent, and others trailing these candidates.

            In New Hampshire, a recent Zogby survey reveals that 23 percent say they support Barack Obama, followed by 19 percent who say they support Hillary Clinton, 19 percent who support John Edwards, and others trailing these front-runners.

            On the Republican side, John McCain is ahead of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani by 26 to 20 percent among New Hampshire voters, followed by Mitt Romney at 13 percent.  In Iowa, Giuliani leads with 19 percent, followed by McCain at 17 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 13 percent, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at 9 percent, and Mitt Romney at 5 percent.


Things to Watch


            Look for lots of volatility over the course of the next year as a big field of candidates battle for their party’s nomination.  This is the first race since 1928 when there has not been a president seeking re-election or a vice-president wanting to move up.


1) The Money Primary


            In the short-run, all attention will be focused on the money primary.  This is the informal contest to raise cash in 2007.  Leading contenders will need something between $75 and $100 million by the end of this calendar year.  The need for lots of financial resources advantages candidates such as Clinton, Obama, Edwards, McCain, Giuliani, and Romney who are well-known and have demonstrated fundraising capacity.


2) Iraq War


            The issue of Iraq remains the 800-pound guerrilla in this presidential contest.  Voters across the country continue to point to this unpopular war as their most important national concern.  With President Bush committing additional troops, voters must see more calm and stability in that country by late summer or early Fall in order for the president to maintain this policy.  If by late 2007, America continues to suffer serious casualties in this war and there is a continuation of sectarian violence in Iraq, this issue will be the dominant issue of the presidential campaign, and it will not be an easy election for Republicans.


3) State of the Economy


            Most American elections focus more on domestic economic considerations than foreign policy.  However, the last two election cycles have been contested mainly on foreign policy.  Unless Iraq improves significantly in the next six months, look for that pattern to continue.

            However, the economy is an issue that always affects the campaign.  Although the economy slowed at the end of 2006, it looks like economic growth may pick up to 3 percent in the coming year.  Watch the personal income numbers, consumer spending, and the housing market as barometers of economic well-being.  The stronger those numbers are, the better off Republicans will be in 2008. 


4) The Gender and Race Gaps


            With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among Democratic front-runners, pay attention to how men and women as well as whites, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans and people from different regions view the candidates.  Candidates must secure their base early in a crowded field, but also make sure they reach out to other groups different from themselves.


5) Party Prospects


            Right now, Democrats are well-positioned for 2008.  Due in large part to voter discontent with Iraq, Democrats recaptured control of the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years.  A Newsweek national survey shows that when asked whether voters want a Democrat or Republican president in 2008, 49 percent indicate they prefer a Democrat, while only 28 percent say they want a Republican.