Race, Gender Less Relevant in '08

By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2007; 12:48 PM

Campaign 2008 has raised the question of whether voters will hesitate to back a major female or black presidential contender, but at this early stage voters seem to weigh other criteria more heavily in determining which candidate they might favor, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

According to voters, being over the age of 72, a Mormon, twice divorced or a smoker all are bigger drags on a candidate's support than is gender or race. In this poll, nearly six in 10 Americans said they would be less likely to vote for an older candidate, three in 10 less likely to vote for a Mormon, a quarter less likely to support a candidate with two divorces and 21 percent less likely to back someone who smokes cigarettes. And for each of these, those turned off by the attribute greatly outnumbered those who said they would be more likely to support such a candidate. For example, while 58 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate older than 72, a scant 3 percent said they would be more likely to prefer such a candidate.

By contrast, 13 percent of voters said they would be less likely to support a woman and 6 percent said they would be less likely to support a black candidate -- numbers about equally offset by the percentages of people who said they would be more likely to support candidates with those attributes.

While the current slate of 2008 candidates features someone with each of the attributes that appear on balance to make voters uneasy -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) turns 72 in 2008, former governor Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) is a member of the Mormon church, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) is married to his third wife and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is trying to kick a tobacco habit -- it is unclear how these factors will play out as the Democratic and Republican nomination campaigns progress.

Issues may ultimately prove more important than these personal characteristics, and all elections in the end are match-ups between candidates who possess a range of characteristics, affiliations and experiences. As elsewhere, in politics much is relative.

Also, public attitudes may evolve.

Already, feelings toward a Mormon candidate have eased: In this poll, 29 percent said they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate -- second only to age as a vote deterrent -- but that is down from 35 percent in December. While that might be good news for Romney, hesitation about a Mormon candidate is widely held, peaking at 38 percent among white evangelical Protestants, who are among the core Republican primary voters Romney has been courting.

There may also be limits on how much can change: Most of those who said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon also said there was "no chance" they would do so.

Many who would be less apt to back a Mormon said they disagree with or are uncomfortable with the religion (39 percent), do not know enough about the religion (12 percent) and worry about the influence of the Mormon church (11 percent), the last echoing concerns expressed about papal influence on John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. Fewer said their reluctance to support a Mormon was because they are not "true Christians" (7 percent volunteered this in the open-ended question) or due to polygamy or Mormon conservatism (both 6 percent).

This poll asked a similar open-ended question of those who said they would be less likely to vote for a woman as president, and 13 percent said they would. Of those people, 31 percent said they did not think a woman can do the job and 27 percent said a man would do better. The next most cited reason was a dislike of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), expressed by 15 percent of those less apt to support a female presidential candidate.

These data come from a Post-ABC News poll conducted by telephone Feb. 22-25, among a random national sample of 1,082 adults. The results have a three-percentage-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

More from this Post-ABC News poll will be released today at 5 p.m.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company