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A Question of Bias

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 7:44 AM

Color me skeptical.

It would be nice to believe that, in a triumph of tolerance, an overwhelming majority of the country is ready to vote for a black or a woman for president, considering that the office has been held by white men for, what, 218 years? But this Newsweek survey I mentioned yesterday raises some doubts.

The simple fact is, people are reluctant to acknowledge their prejudices to pollsters. They are more likely, in a telephone interview, to respond with what they think is the "correct" position, even if they behave differently in the privacy of the voting booth.

If voters are so color-blind, why have only two African-Americans since Reconstruction won governor's offices? And only three been elected to the Senate?

And the poll contains a huge red flag: Many people saying they would have no problem voting for a black or female presidential candidate, but the rest of the country just isn't ready. That strikes me as a cop-out option for those who really have qualms but don't want to say so, or even acknowledge that to themselves.

On the surface, the findings should be good news for Hillary and Obama. I'm surprised, after Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel and Geena Davis, that the number of folks saying they'd vote for a woman is lower than those saying they're comfortable with an African-American, given the history of racial discrimination in this country. But maybe it's more socially acceptable to admit discomfort with voting for a female commander-in-chief than to risk charges of racism by ruling out a black candidate.

Here's the piece: "Although 92 percent of the NEWSWEEK Poll's respondents claim they would vote for a black candidate (up from 83 percent in 1991), only 59 percent believe the country is actually ready for an African-American president (an improvement over 37 percent in a 2000 CBS News poll). Similarly, 86 percent of voters say they would vote for a female commander in chief, but only 58 percent believe the country is ready for one (up from 40 percent in a 1996 CBS poll).

"Two thirds (66 percent) of voters said there was at least some chance they'd vote for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (35 percent said there was a 'good' chance, up from 20 percent last November). About as many (62 percent) said there was some chance they'd vote for Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton (43 percent said good chance, up from 33 percent). In a head-to-head race, though, Clinton dominates Obama 56 to 33 percent.

"Experience appears to outweigh both race and gender in voters' minds, however. More than two-thirds (70 percent) of the poll's respondents feel Clinton, a former First Lady now in her second term as senator from New York, has enough experience in government to be a good president. For Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, the number drops to 40 percent (as many as 34 percent say he does not have enough experience). Both candidates are considered more qualified for office by nonwhites than by whites. Fifty-four percent of minorities say Obama is qualified; only 34 percent of whites agree. Eight in 10 (79 percent) minorities consider Clinton to be qualified enough, versus 67 percent of whites. More than half (55 percent) say former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards has enough experience to be president, while 25 percent say he does not . . .

"Although 81 percent of voters say they would cast their ballot for a Hispanic candidate if nominated by their party, only 39 percent of Americans feel the country is ready to elect one--a finding that comes as bad news for Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is seeking his party's nomination."

Reporting on a hardship assignment from Aspen, OpinionJournal columnist John Fund wonders whether Americans really want the Clintons back:

"There is clearly a great deal of Clinton nostalgia in the country, and the audience clearly agreed with Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson's assertion that Mr. Clinton had presided over a time of prosperity when 'American power and prestige was used only for good in the world,' The implication was that U.S. troops and influence are being used for ill today.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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