Race, Gender And Bias In The Electorate

This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic

Will Americans admit to bias? For years, survey researchers have tried to figure out how to measure bias in voting behavior- whether or not people will say they would not vote for certain types of people.

Before the 1970s plenty of people were willing to admit bias. In 1937, The Gallup Poll asked: "Would you vote for a woman for President if she were qualified in every other respect?" The emphasis on "qualified" is mine, but today we are shocked that only 33 percent of Americans then said they'd vote for such a person. In a different poll taken three years later, the question was posed without the "qualified" qualifier, and only 20 percent said they would vote for a woman. So being described as "qualified in every other respect" netted a hypothetical female candidate only 13 points of support.

More shocking, perhaps, was that findings like this -- even among women -- were consistent negative until sometime after 1970. In 1962, Gallup found only 28 percent of women saying they approved of having a woman as president. Sixty eight percent (again, this is among women) disapproved. In a 1970 poll by the Harris Organization (conducted for Virginia Slims, a cigarette targeted at women), 67 percent of women agreed with this statement: "There won't be a woman President of the U.S. for a long time and that's probably just as well."

By the end of the 1970s -- the decade of Vietnam, Watergate, and the women's movement (and only 15 years after Congress passed major civil rights legislation) -- attitudes appeared to have changed. By a margin of three to one in a Time Magazine Poll, Americans said it would be good for the country to have a woman president. And by nearly the same margin, they said it would be good for the country to have a black president.

The unanswered question, of course, is whether that change represented real opinion change, or simply a change in what it was socially acceptable to say. Today, few Americans want to admit that they might be prejudiced about a candidate's race or gender. And when people are asked directly about the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton contest, they can find plenty of reasons to vote for one or the other that don't involve gender or race.

Still, there are differences once we move from asking about you personally to asking about other people. In January, 81 percent of registered voters told CBS News and The New York Times that they would vote for a woman, but just 56 percent said most people they knew would do so. Fifty four percent said America was ready for a woman candidate. As for an African-American, the differences were even starker. Ninety percent said they would vote for a black candidate, 65 percent said most people they knew would, but just 54 percent said America was ready for a black president. That was a 36-point gap between the number saying they would vote for a black candidate and the number saying America was ready; there was, a 27-point gap in the responses when people were asked about a female candidate.

Some of the gap is due to skepticism about other people's behavior, rather than to people concealing their own personal feelings. But there are differences: for example, slightly more voters say they personally couldn't vote for a woman than say they couldn't vote for an African-American; and Democratic voters are less likely than others to admit to a bias.

Polls in recent Democratic primaries suggest that something might be going on under the radar. We conduct exit polls on paper, so there is no interaction between an interviewer and a respondent, and therefore less opportunity for socially desirable answers. And in fact, in Ohio, one in five white men -- and nearly as many white women -- said the race of the candidate mattered to them. Those voters voted nearly four-to-one for Hillary Clinton, a much higher ratio than white voters who did not say race mattered. But even more black voters -- about one in four -- said race mattered to them, and nearly all of them voted for Obama: even more than black voters who said race didn't matter. Fewer voters admitted gender was a factor, but men who did were more likely to vote for Obama than those who did not; women who said gender mattered strongly supported Clinton.

But this experiment in asking about race and gender had a different impact in last week's Mississippi primary. There was almost no gender gap in Mississippi, but the racial divide was enormous. Ninety two percent of African-American voters supported Obama, while just 26 percent of white voters did. Even though nearly four in ten black voters said that race mattered to them, it would have been almost impossible for them to be more pro-Obama than blacks as a whole. However, when whites admitted that race mattered to them (and 24 percent of them did) their votes were more anti-Obama than white voters overall. Only 10 percent of them voted for Obama.

Race and gender continues to be a particularly American concern - and an issue that pollsters will continue to track, probably through November.
By Kathy Frankovic