Will Americans vote for a female president?

Researchers say that voters are less open to the idea than polls would suggest.

Published January 22, 2007 7:52PM (EST)

As we read the latest Associated Press report on Hillary Clinton's run for the White House, we stumbled over an annoying bit of verbiage that we'll probably be seeing a lot over the next two years. Clinton, the AP says, is "vying to be the first woman and first presidential spouse to win the White House." Barack Obama, meanwhile, "hopes to become the first black president."

Maybe we're a little too sensitive here, but the last time we checked, Clinton and Obama weren't running for "first woman president" or "first black president." They're running for president, period.

That said, Clinton's gender and Obama's race are obviously going to play roles in this campaign, and researchers at Northern Illinois University are offering some insights into how. Although national polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans say they'd be comfortable voting for a qualified woman to serve as president, NIU political scientist Matt Streb says that a "a significant percentage of people are hiding their true feelings" because they know that opposition to a candidate based on gender alone is socially unacceptable.

How does he know? If people tell pollsters that they're comfortable with the idea of a female candidate, you probably won't get very far by asking them if they're really just hiding their true feelings. Instead, Streb and his NIU colleagues went at the question another way. They asked a test group of respondents to say how many of four different statements made them "angry or upset": the rising price of gas, the high salaries paid to professional athletes, pollution by large corporations and laws that require seat-belt usage. The researchers obtained a base number using those four statements, then added a fifth: "a woman serving as president." With that statement in the mix, the mean number of "angry or upset" responses increased by so much that the researchers believe that about 26 percent of their respondents were troubled by the "woman serving as president" addition.

According to a summary of the findings in an NIU press release, the researchers saw "virtually equal" levels of resistance among male and female respondents and "nearly equal" levels among respondents with different education levels. The researchers didn't test for the separate-but-similar question of race, but Streb surmises in the press release that the same sort of "social desirability" distortion is "almost certainly going to be a factor" in polls measuring support for Barack Obama.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton War Room