The 2008 presidential field presents a veritable cornucopia of potential firsts – a woman, an African-American, a Hispanic, a Mormon, and, representing the attribute perhaps most sensitive for discussion, a top contender who would be the oldest person ever to assume the American presidency.
For Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson, and Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and age are, respectively, only a part of what defines them. But as they seek to shape their identities with the American people, each must cope with questions and challenges arising from personal attributes.
Polls on all these characteristics – asked generically, without a specific name attached – lay out the contours of each candidate's challenge. In the latest Gallup poll, 11 percent of voters say they would not vote for a woman if their party nominated one, 5 percent would not vote for an African-American, and 24 percent would not vote for a Mormon. In all questions, the generic candidate is described as "a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [fill in the blank]."
According to Gallup, 87 percent of Americans say they are willing to vote for an unnamed Hispanic nominee (see New Mexico Governor Richardson, who is Mexican-American) and 12 percent are not. But in the same Gallup poll, taken Feb. 9-11, the percentage of Americans saying they are unwilling to vote for an unnamed 72-year-old – a whopping 42 percent – is bad news for Senator McCain, who will be 72 by Election Day.
A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll taken last December shows 14 percent of voters would not vote for a 72-year-old. The difference may reflect differences in the two polls' wording.
For the candidates, generic polls go only so far. Voters probably react differently to Senator Obama than, say, to the Rev. Al Sharpton, both of whom are black Demo-crats. McCain can counter questions about his age by presenting a vigorous profile on the campaign trail. And when a generic question is asked after a person who fits the profile comes to the fore, it is possible that person is skewing the result.
In the Gallup poll, which has been asking the woman president question since 1937, the number has dropped in recent years – likely a reaction to Senator Clinton, who was a subject of presidential speculation for years before she announced. The portion of Americans willing to vote for a qualified woman nominee of their own party reached a high of 92 percent in 1999, and is now at 88 percent.
"Our hypothesis is, when you say, 'Would you vote for a woman?' some voters think Hillary Clinton, so you're getting a reaction from some hard-core Republicans," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll.
If you're former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is Mormon, it's important to know that 1 in 4 voters react negatively to that faith in a presidential candidate. Still, says Mr. Newport, "that doesn't mean he can't overcome [that negativity]."
To activists who have worked for years to combat stereotypes in the political world, the very fact that so much attention is being paid early in the '08 race to personal characteristics is telling.
The generic polls "tell us that we have not done enough work to get numbers of people into these areas of public life to represent difference in America," says Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, which promotes women in politics. "We haven't gotten enough women in, we haven't gotten enough people of color in, we haven't gotten enough diversity by religious background or age."
It's possible that after the news media have completed their first wave of coverage on all the potential "firsts" in the '08 presidential race, the focus will turn more to issue differences.
But the politics of identity is likely to remain an element of coverage to the bitter end. Every time Clinton makes a comment on the Iraq war, or on her vote to authorize the war in October 2002, the fact that she is female is usually part of the analysis. As a Democrat, in particular – a member of a party that has fought for a generation to toughen up its image on defense – she faces a double challenge in establishing her bona fides.
"Only women have to prove they're man enough for the job," says Ms. Wilson.
Still, Wilson adds, in a country where the social-cultural ideal of women remains as wives and mothers, Clinton has also had to identify with gender stereotypes in order to be accepted. In other words, she must strike a careful balance between addressing kitchen-table matters and describing how she would protect the nation as commander in chief.
In comparing Gallup's generic identity polls that go back the furthest – willingness to vote for a black president versus willingness to vote for a woman – it is striking that more Americans would vote for an African-American (94 percent) than would vote for a woman (88 percent).
When Gallup began polling on willingness to vote for a woman president in 1937, the figure came in at 33 percent and reached a majority for the first time in 1955, at 52 percent. Gallup began polling on a black president in 1958, when the figure was 37 percent. For many years, Americans reported greater willingness to vote for a woman than a black, but in the late '60s, the lines crossed, though at times, they have been in a statistical dead heat.