Gender And Race In The Democratic Primary

By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys.

Before the New Hampshire primary results were known, this seemed like the week to write about questions of race and sex, and Americans' willingness to express negative feelings about the potential breakthrough of women and African-American candidates for president.

Even after New Hampshire, those topics still are relevant. In fact, they have become part of the discussion of the discrepancy between the final pre-election polls and the actual primary results. You can find a good review of the arguments at Pollster.com -- New Hampshire: So What Happened?

One important part of that discussion: there was a lot of potential for movement in the days before the primary. In the CBS News Poll conducted last weekend, which consisted of re-interviews of New Hampshire registered voters first interviewed in November, 28 percent of those who had a choice said their minds could still change. And additional 9 percent of all likely Democratic primary voters were undecided.

So, it was a fluid race. About one in four of the people we re-interviewed had already changed their minds once, moving from supporting one candidate in November to supporting another. Hillary Clinton has lost the largest number - of course, as the [November] frontrunner, she had the most to lose.

But those who were with her in last weekend's poll - especially the women - were more committed to her than were the women who supported Barack Obama or John Edwards. 95 percent of women supporting Clinton said their minds were made up. Less than two thirds of women supporting her opponents said the same thing.

What people say they might do in a purely hypothetical situation doesn't necessary match what they say when confronted with the real case, or when asked who or what they prefer. Some data suggest it is easier for people to say they really don't want to vote for a woman than it is for them to say that race forms part of their thinking when they decide how to vote. Of course, the language people tend to use when talking about politics is the masculine language of sports. We hear that Hillary Clinton was "on the ropes" before the New Hampshire primary, and that on election night Clinton and Barack Obama were "battling it out" for first place. And, after all, we measure a "horserace."

The historical trend on willingness to vote for a woman - or for a black candidate - is quite dramatic. Now, about nine in ten Americans say they would be willing to vote for a woman candidate for president "if she were qualified for the job" and similar numbers say they would be willing to vote for a qualified black person.

But even if you are (at least hypothetically) willing, you may not think other people are. Barely half of all voters last year thought the country was ready to elect a black president (54 percent) or a woman president (55 percent). Black voters were especially skeptical: only 45 percent of them thought America was ready for an African-American president (That was BEFORE Obama's victory in Iowa; we'll be able to see if that has changed soon.).

And the hypothetical might not translate to the specific. Recent evidence for this comes from last month's CBS News Poll in South Carolina. We asked voters in South Carolina a different pair of questions -- whether "all things being equal" they would rather vote for a man or a woman for president, and whether or not they would rather vote for someone of their own race.

Nearly nine in ten said a candidate's race didn't matter - much like the answers of voters nationally when asked if they would be willing to vote for a black candidate for president. But the responses are different when it comes to women. One in four voters in South Carolina said they would rather vote for a man - and on that question it didn't matter whether or not the respondents themselves were men or women. 27 percent of men would rather vote for another man, but so would 23 percent of women. Hardly any women - or men, for that matter - said they would prefer to vote for a woman.

That was the preference among all voters. But since all the Republican candidates are white men, the question was really irrelevant for Republican primary voters. What about those who do actually have the opportunity this year to choose a woman or a black man?

It turns out that a lot of the stated bias against women candidates for president occurred among Republican voters. And black voters overall were less likely than white voters to say either race or gender mattered. But 11 percent of white Democratic primary voters said all things being equal, they would rather vote for a candidate of their own race, much like the answers from all voters. Thirteen percent of those same voters said they would rather vote for a man. But among those South Carolina Democrats, it was white women - 17 percent of them - who admitted they preferred to vote for a man; only 6 percent said they would prefer voting for a woman.

And when it came to the specific, race took precedence over gender. When we asked who South Carolina Democrats intended to vote for, white voters (male and female) supported Hillary Clinton; while black voters (male and female) supported Barack Obama. So before South Carolina's January 26 Democratic primary, pollsters will have to grapple with questions of race and sex once again.
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