Political experts explained Monday that this year's Democratic presidential contest -- which features a woman and a black man -- is being shaped by media and voter biases.
About 40 University of Michigan students, faculty and Ann Arbor, Mich., residents gathered in Lane Hall for the event, called "Race and Gender in Presidential Politics."
One panelist, Nicholas Valentino, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said voters might be more concerned about a candidate's race than they're willing to admit.
He said voters often lie to exit pollsters about how they've voted. That phenomenon leads some to say they've voted for Barack Obama -- who's vying to become the nation's first black president -- even when they haven't, he said. Because of this, Obama tends to do better in exit polling than he does in the actual primary contests, Valentino said.
He said the race of the interviewer often affects voters' answers to exit poll questions.
Kathleen Frankovic, director of surveys at CBS News, offered other reasons for Obama's success in exit polls. Young voters and well-educated voters are more likely to participate in exit polls, as they are often more enthusiastic about their candidate, she said. These demographics have favored Obama, inflating his exit poll results.
Political Science Associate Prof. Vince Hutchings, who studies voter behavior at the University, said Obama's decision to downplay race in his campaign has helped him reach a wider base of support.
"Obama's success is born out of this effort to not talk about the thing which divides us the most -- race," he said.
Hutchings said Obama's campaign has affected white voters differently from black voters. For white voters, he said, Obama's campaign success serves as an indication that racism doesn't exist anymore. For black voters, Obama is providing hope for equal opportunity in the country, he said.
The panelists also discussed the role gender has played in Hillary Clinton's candidacy. Valentino said the media has held Clinton to a double standard -- she's had to portray herself as both a strong leader and a feminine at the same time.
"She really has to walk a tight rope, and many have mentioned that there may be no rope there," he said.
The panelists said voters are often sexist when making voting decisions.
To illustrate the theory, Frankovic showed a clip in which journalist Katie Couric interviewed working class men about whether they'd vote for a woman president. Most said they wouldn't.
Frankovic said the clip shows that Americans are typically less veiled about voicing sexism than racism.
Rackham student Davin Phoenix said he enjoyed the discussion because it provided a closer look at the upcoming general election. He said much of the media coverage surrounding Obama and Clinton has limited the debate to race and gender.
Carol Boyd, director of University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, called the event a success.
"It highlighted that the voters in 2008 are more important than ever and that issues of race and gender remain at the forefront of America's conscience," she said.
© 2008 Michigan Daily via U-WIRE