Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Effect of Gender and Race on the Race, Part I

The candidacy of Herman Cain and the candidacies of Michele Bachmann and/or Sarah Palin represent the first time that the Republican Party might nominate a presidential candidate who is not a white man. Is being non-white or a woman an asset or an obstacle? How big of a role will it play in the nominating process?

Many Democratic political commentators believe that the Republican Party generally possesses a bias against women and minorities. They are skeptical that Republicans would vote for a candidate who is not white and male, even if the candidate would otherwise be better than the alternatives. It's also conventional wisdom among Democrats that the Tea Party is especially bigoted. If true, Bachmann, Cain, and Palin would face extra difficulty winning the nomination.

The evidence suggests that these Democrats are mistaken, especially with regard to the Tea Party. The midterm election of 2010 saw many more women and minorities nominated by the Republican Party than in previous years. Partly this was because the Tea Party brought in new candidates, many of whom had not worked their way up the political ranks. This meant there was less of a reliance on the "old boys' networks" that had been built in past decades. Thus, the recent increase of women and minorities in Republican politics was more readily apparent.

It also displayed the Republican voters' focus on policy positions over "identity politics." Rather than voting for candidates who shared their demographic traits, Republican voters wanted someone who agreed with them on the issues. Political experience was actually a liability for some of the older (more frequently white and male) candidates, who had made compromises over the years.

As it turned out, not being white and/or male was an asset in many cases. In primary fields--especially at the state and local level--candidates tend to blur together, and they struggle to differentiate themselves. Being the only woman or minority in the field enabled some candidates to increase their visibility and, therefore, their chances of victory.

Given the results of the 2010 primaries, why is it so common for left-leaning political commentators to believe Republicans are less likely to vote for someone who is not a white man? For most Democrats, the prime factor is ignorance. Few Democrats are fully aware of what occurred during the 2010 election. The commentators themselves, however--who actually did follow the race and should be aware of its results--are motivated by a desire to maintain moral superiority over their opponents. If Republicans are bigoted, they are inferior; Democrats are righteous. This feeling is particularly attractive to Democrats who eschew "traditional morality" and feel a need to compensate.

Generalities aside, how will race and gender affect a presidential primary? One with Bachmann, Cain, and Palin in particular? We'll take a closer look in Part II.