The New York Times had an interesting analysis of the presidential politics of color and gender yesterday in their Week in Review section. The article notes that we've had 217 years of presidential history with only white, male presidential nominees. Is the country ready for change?
Without question, women and blacks have made significant progress in winning office. The new Congress will include 71 women — one of whom will be the first female speaker of the House — compared with 25 when Representative Geraldine Ferraro, a Queens Democrat, became the first woman to run as a major-party vice presidential candidate in 1984. There will be 43 blacks in the new Congress, compared with 13 when the Congressional Black Caucus was formed in 1969. A Gallup Poll in September showed a steady rise in the number of people who expect the nation to elect a woman or an African-American as president one day: Americans, it seems, are much more open to these choices than, say, someone who is an atheist or who is gay.Read the whole thing. It's an interesting question as to whether we'll first elect a woman or a minority to the White House. Upon consideration, public support for a white woman does seem to be less controversial, given our history.
Times are indeed changing. But how much?
Over the past of the past eight years, in the view of analysts from both parties, the country has shifted markedly on the issue of gender, to the point where they say voters could very well be open to electing a woman in 2008. That is reflected, they say, in polling data and in the continued success of women running for office, in red and blue states alike. “The country is ready,” said Senator Elizabeth Dole, the North Carolina Republican, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2000. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen in ’08. But the country is ready.”
By contrast, for all the excitement stirred by Mr. Obama, it is much less certain that an African-American could win a presidential election. Not as many blacks have been elected to prominent positions as women. Some high-profile black candidates — Harold Ford Jr., a Democrat running for the Senate in Tennessee, and Michael Steele, a Republican Senate candidate in Maryland — lost in November. And demographics might be an obstacle as well: black Americans are concentrated in about 25 states — typically blue ones, like New York and California. While black candidates cannot assume automatic support from black voters, they would at least provide a base. In states without big black populations, the candidate’s crossover appeal must be huge.
“All evidence is that a white female has an advantage over a black male — for reasons of our cultural heritage,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the civil rights leader who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. Still, he said, for African-American and female candidates, “It’s easier — emphatically so.”
Ms. Ferraro offered a similar sentiment. “I think it’s more realistic for a woman than it is for an African-American,” said Ms. Ferraro. “There is a certain amount of racism that exists in the United States — whether it’s conscious or not it’s true.”
“Women are 51 percent of the population,” she added.
Yet, regarding the election of a black president, I'm a supporter of the theory that -- in this day an age -- the most important factor in determining suport for a candidate is individual attributes rather than race. The piece cites David Bositis, an expert on race and politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who suggests that given the right candidate, Americans might very well elect a black candidate. Colin Powell, who seriously considered a White House bid in 1996, is the key example of the type of African-American likely to generate white support in the electorate. Powell is a military man and political moderate, who worked in various Republican administrations. Often not noted, but obviously key, is Powell's fair skin -- the lighter the better, one might argue, in reducing racial prejudices.
I doubt Barack Obama's got the gravitas of Colin Powell, and while his speaking style transcends the victimology of race politics, he doesn't seem to have many convictions so far, and has no real legislative record to trumpet. His skins darker, too! I do like him though, and I expect he's giving the Clinton camp jitters.
Note also that race politics gets nasty when a black candidate edges near a successful finish. Harold Ford's campaign for the Tennessee Senate seat this year revived the racial mudslinging history of years past. We no doubt will have more of it in 2008 if Obama can get past Hillary to win the nomination -- remember Willie Horton? And getting past Hillary will be no calkwalk. It'd be interesting to see if some Willie Horton-type ads run during the Democratic primaries -- are Hillary-backers capable of that kind of racial hardball?