Friday, June 3, 2011

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

Continued from Part I.

Last time, we saw that women and minority candidates--provided their policy positions line up with the voters--tend to have an advantage in Republican primaries: They are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd and get more media attention. To what extent does this apply to the candidates in the 2012 Republican presidential primary?

The effect is somewhat muted. Though most Republicans have not heard of half the candidates running for president, early primary voters tend to familiarize themselves with all the contenders by the time voting day arrives. Standing out from the crowd is always a good thing, but when the voters know all of the candidates, the effect of race and gender is not as dramatic.

There's no question that being the only non-white candidate in the field has helped raise Herman Cain's visibility. Other "businessman" candidates with no political experience have not fared as well as Cain, and have not gotten the poll numbers necessary to be invited to major primary debates (Donald Trump, more of a celebrity than anything else, provides the exception). On the other hand, Cain is also unique because until Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann gets into the race, he is the only Tea Party favorite in the race, and he has the greatest ability to excite crowds.

What about the idea that Barack Obama being the first black president hurts future black candidates? The fact that Obama is black is unhelpful for Cain in one sense, but it has nothing to do with Obama's job performance or politics. Rather, the fact that there has already been a black president simply takes away some of the history-making appeal that Cain would have otherwise enjoyed. Many first-time voters specifically went to the polls to help elect the first black president. Obama benefited from that in a way that no future black candidate ever can.

There is likely to be one woman running in the primary; either Bachmann or Palin will run, but probably not both. And it's already clear that Cain will be the only minority candidate in the running. Interestingly, all three are Tea Party candidates with low perceived electability, and will be competing for the same voters. This further blunts the impact of a gender/race advantage, because they will split each other's votes.

The electability issue also plays a role. A candidate who is neither white nor male is often perceived to be more electable, especially where a Republican minority candidate can make inroads into a Democratic constituency. But with Bachmann, Cain, and Palin, all suffer from low perceived electability. Few Republicans will think that Bachmann is an electable candidate who can appeal to independent women voters. And few believe that Cain would be able to put much of a dent in Obama's black support.

The effect of race and gender can play out differently from election to election, depending on the particular dynamics of the field. For a contrast with the present field, imagine if Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney were Hispanic--they would immediately move toward the front of the pack as uniquely electable. Or suppose there were two candidates trying to appeal to the same wing of the Party, but one were a woman. If they were otherwise similar, the woman would have the edge.