Sabatos Crystal Ball


Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics August 2nd, 2007


One unusual function of presidential elections is to allow us to confront our own prejudices. The 2008 contest already guarantees us more opportunities to do that than any other in American history.

The nation’s performance in this regard is both ugly and inspiring. New York Governor Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic nominated by a major party for the White House, endured withering volleys of pure hate in 1928, losing even solidly Democratic states in the heavily Protestant South to Republican Herbert Hoover. But by 1960, Americans were able (barely) to get beyond their fears of “papist rule from the Vatican” to elect John F. Kennedy. Still, 80 percent of Catholics voted for JFK while 69 percent of Protestants cast a ballot for Richard M. Nixon. Religious affiliation was the single greatest predictor of an individual’s vote in that remarkable year. No other Catholic has since won the Presidency, but several candidates in both parties are affiliated with this religion–and it is highly doubtful that it will be much of an issue.

Another religion will be an issue, owing to GOP candidate Mitt Romney. One of the most discouraging surprises from the 2008 campaign so far has been how virulent the strain of anti-Mormonism is in our nation. Several surveys have shown that more Americans openly admit that they would not vote for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) than would rule out voting for a woman or an African-American.

If your party nominated a ________ for president, would you vote for that person if he or she were qualified for the job? [Newsweek, July 2007]

Yes No Don’t Know
Woman 86 percent 9 percent 5 percent
Black or African American 92 percent 4 percent 4 percent
Hispanic 81 percent 14 percent 5 percent
Mormon 66 percent 27 percent 7 percent

Disturbingly, in some polls, up to 43 percent [Rasmussen, November 2006] of the public admits that they would not consider voting for a Mormon for president. It is clear that myths about widespread polygamy–it is actually an isolated, now-strongly discouraged practice within the LDS Church–and strange religious beliefs (don’t all religions have, objectively and rationally, “strange” beliefs?) abound.

Here’s another fascinating sidelight to this prejudice. It is held tightly by two ships passing in the night, liberals who regard Mormons as right-wing Republicans and evangelical Christian conservatives who have been taught that Mormonism is a dangerous cult. Without question, Romney will have to confront anti-Mormon sentiment just as John F. Kennedy did in his brilliant, breathtakingly effective speech to Protestant ministers in Houston on September 12, 1960. Some press reports suggest that Romney will do so in the autumn, and a leader in the Romney campaign confirmed this for the Crystal Ball. No date or venue has apparently been set.

On the Democratic side, three presidential candidates are challenging convention. Barack Obama may have the highest hurdle. There is no issue in American politics like the race issue. Certainly, we have made palpable progress since the 1960s at the ballot box, but only rarely has an African-American been elected from a large, primarily white constituency. The five best examples are the three modern-day black U.S. senators (Obama himself, his Illinois Democratic predecessor Carol Moseley Braun who served from 1993 to 1998, and Republican Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, a two-term legislator from 1967 to 1979) as well as the two African-American Governors, Democrats L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia (1990-1994) and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts (2007- ). All but Wilder won handily, but Wilder was elected from the capital of the old Confederacy nearly two decades ago, when Virginia was more heavily conservative.

Most racial prejudice is deeply hidden and not easily acknowledged by most people, and thus polls tend to understate it. At this time, only 4 percent admit that they personally would not vote to put any black person in the White House, but 30 percent believe that America is “not ready” for a black president. In Democratic primaries, however, Obama’s racial identity will be much more of a plus, since African Americans comprise such a large percentage of some early primaries, with the notable exceptions of heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire. In South Carolina, for instance, black Democrats accounted for 49 percent of the primary electorate in 2004.

Ironically, race has been injected into the Democratic contest not by whites but by some African-Americans. They suggest that the young, post-civil rights era, multi-racial Obama is somehow “not black enough”. They ignore what having Obama as President would mean to African-Americans, not to mention the American image abroad. When JFK was elected, Europeans marveled that the United States was confident enough to elect a youthful, vigorous representative of a new generation; by contrast, Europe and most of the rest of the world was dominated by those of a more traditional, less forward-looking age. Diversity is the watchword of the U.S. population in the 21st century. By the year 2050, whites will make up only 50.1 percent of the total U.S. population.

Should Obama be the Democratic nominee, whole forests will be denuded as the press speculates about the impact of race on the November election. The betting here is that his race will become an electoral asset to Obama. As we saw in the elections of the five black leaders mentioned earlier, voting for the African-American candidate became a popular thing to do in the suburbs among whites of higher incomes and better educations. Their vote became a badge of honor in their communities, objective proof that they were racially broad-minded. The Democrats will determine whether we have the opportunity to see whether such a phenomenon can occur in 2008.

Another powerful prejudice concerns gender. The same polls cited earlier suggest that 9 percent would exclude from consideration a woman candidate for the White House, while a full 32 percent believe America is “not ready to elect a woman president.” Nonetheless, as the number of women elected to Congress and Governorships has multiplied–from a total of 23 in 1976 to 99 in 2006–it has become far easier for voters to imagine a woman in the Oval Office. Still, the position of President is the “most masculine” in gender terms because of the post’s attendant role as commander-in-chief. This is the glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton seeks to break.

It’s a breeze in the Democratic primaries. Women comprise up to 59 percent of the vote in the Democratic Party contests, and they are liberal women, by and large, made to order for Senator Clinton. It’s obvious her campaign has long since realized this, judging by her constant appeals to female solidarity and perceived gender slights (the Clinton fundraising letter following the “cleavage” controversy generated by a female fashion style writer at the Washington Post, the senator’s recent appearance before the hairdressers group that appealed to female pride in appearance, her debate comments about the history-making potential in her candidacy, and so on. So far, Clinton has run an “I Am Woman–Hear Me Roar” campaign for the Democratic nomination.

It is doubtful that her general election effort, should it happen, will be quite as gender-specific. Even though 53 percent of the general electorate is composed of women, Clinton will have to appeal to Independent men and women in order to win–and they find her modern-day suffragette pose a bit strident. However, all Clinton has to do is play a subtle female card from time to time, and she can be sure it will be amplified by a sympathetic press. Moreover, were it not for her precedent-shattering gender, Clinton would arguably be nothing more than a throwback to the 1990s, the perfect representation of the prior regime and the Democratic Establishment’s front-person–not exactly a formula for winning the Presidency in a potentially angry year like 2008.

The other tantalizing aspect of Clinton’s persona, as it relates to gender, is her often cold, profane, severe exterior. The main objection that “biased” Americans might have to a woman President would be the fear that she would not be hard-hitting enough. Is there really anyone who believes Hillary Clinton isn’t tough as furnace-fired nails? She has always reminded us of the first woman U.K. Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, of whom it was often said, “She’s the only one in the [British] Cabinet with balls.”

Finally, Bill Richardson may have to face an anti-Hispanic bias, should he continue to emerge as a serious candidate in the Democratic field. (He’s in fourth place but has demonstrated some upward movement of late in Iowa and New Hampshire.) The divisive immigration debate may aggravate an anti-Richardson effect. Polls show that 14 percent of Americans say they will not vote to back any Latino candidate, and 48 percent say America isn’t ready for a Hispanic president. There’s a trade-off for Richardson, though. His Anglo surname hurts him among Hispanics, many of whom do not yet realize his ethnicity, but the same name game may dampen the prejudice of the rest of the electorate.

All of the prejudices discussed in this essay–racial, religious, gender, and ethnic–are manifestly unjust, unfair, and intolerant. But they are a fact of political life and, so far at least, the human condition. Here’s the good news. They are also un-American.

While our history can be read by cynics as a long story of painful discrimination, we choose to view it in another, more accurate way. America is basically a “live and let live” society, and that is one of our enduring strengths. When confronted with evidence of our own biases, we reconsider, sooner or later. Over the long run, the triumph of tolerance is assured, in our optimistic view, and the idea of American progress is irresistible. The 2008 campaign for president, we believe, will prove this once again.