Amherst Wire

The Identity Ballot

Posted November 4, 2008

What roles do race and gender really play in the 2008 election? The answers are not what you might expect.


Article by Hollis Smith / The Amherst Wire

In his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention Barack Obama said, “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The speech propelled Obama to political fame, bringing him into the public eye and the hype of the 2008 presidential race. But contrary to his claim, it’s clear that both race and gender are as much of an issue as the war or the economy in the battle for the White House. The question that political analysts and the candidates are asking themselves now is: What effects will this have on the outcome of the election?

I. The Bradley Effect
With Obama ahead of John McCain in voter polls, many analysts and average “Joe the Plumbers” alike have discussed the possibility of a “Bradley Effect” on the election results. This political phenomenon is named after the 1982 African-American gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, who, despite being the projected winner of the election, lost to his white opponent. The theory points at hidden voter racism to explain the discrepancy in polls and actual votes.

Many believe that the Bradley scenario will not be repeated in this election. Analysts say there are additional factors at play here that did not have an effect in the California election. Ray La Raja, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains that Obama has the long-term support of many well-known white politicians, whereas Bradley did not. According to La Raja, Obama is an entity that the public is used to seeing everywhere on television and in newspapers. This makes Obama’s identity much less of a shock for the American public.

Not all are so optimistic. UMass political science professor Tatishe Nteta says that even today, “race does matter, particularly for white voters.” With Obama leading in the polls, Nteta warns that at the very least, “the Bradley Effect is a relic of bad polling.”

On the other hand, there has also been talk of a “Reverse Bradley Effect.” UMass Afro-American studies professor Manisha Sinha said, “In the south there is a reverse Bradley Effect. There are many whites who won’t say that they voted for Obama. They’ll think that people will ostracize them for ‘betraying their race,’ but they may feel he is the best candidate.”


II. How voters relate to candidates
Communications graduate student and journalism lecturer Razvan Sibii explains that a fundamental trend in the way people vote can be seen in how much they share with a candidate on a more personal level.

“There seems to be this thing about voting for someone who will see the world the way you see it. And most often, those people are people who match you in terms of demographics,” Sibii said. “If you are a woman, you want a woman to lead you because you think that they will have the same sensibilities, the same perspectives on the world as you do. The same with race.”

Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a UMass professor and chairman of the sociology department, said that in the last 20 years there seems to be “a sex gap in voting where women are more likely to vote for Democrats and . . . a big race gap in voting for African Americans who are very likely to vote for Democrats.” If such trends remain consistent in this election then Obama can be expected to sweep African-American and women votes.

La Raja described Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, as a “double-edged sword.” Many believe Palin was chosen as McCain’s running mate because she was a conservative woman who could rally the Republican base.

“I think gender played out differently than the Republican strategists thought it would,” Sinha said. “Until the afterglow from the Republican National Convention wore off they actually thought they managed to fool the electorate, particularly women.”


III. Gender
McCain’s picking Palin has sparked questions like, “Does she have the experience?” and “Is she more than just a pretty face?” Many voters claim they will not vote for McCain because of
 Palin, but it’s difficult to tell whether this is because of inexperience or gender.

“Palin does have a kind of cute pretty femininity. Macho masculinity has a positive cultural valance, at least if it’s not on a black man, it is seen as attractive, associated with intelligence, things like that,” said Tomaskovic-Devey.

“Being cute and pretty on a woman doesn’t normally get you extra points. Extra intelligence points, extra competency points, in the like it can be quite the opposite.”

Gender does not only apply to Palin. In this presidential race, gender is more than lipstick and high heels — it is mannerisms, it is social behavior, and it pertains to Obama
 and McCain as well as Palin.

“Socially, the way they [Obama and McCain] do masculinity is different. McCain is more aggressive, he has a temper, so he does a kind of traditional aggressive masculinity, Obama does not. He is very calm, very non-threatening in his posture, you never see muscles tensing up, you never see anger,” said Tomaskovic-Devey.

Both presidential candidates do behave in very different ways, but could this be a conscious strategy?

“There’s also how masculinity is received by people, so that’s how they behave, then there’s us as the viewers, how do we react? Traditional macho masculinity on a white man is very acceptable in this country. From a black man, it’s scary as hell. So Obama couldn’t behave like McCain and be a successful candidate,” said Tomaskovic-Devey.


IV. Race
When La Raja describes
 Obama as running a “colorblind campaign,” he explains that Obama has spoken very little about what can be interpreted as stereotypical “black issues,” such as welfare or crime. La Raja also references the amount that Obama has distanced himself from people who have been labeled as racially polarizing like Jesse Jackson and Reverend Wright, while working more with the support of mainstream icons like Oprah.

It is interesting to see the racial and gender politics that have occurred in this campaign, and obvious that there are underlying strategies on both ends of the spectrum as the candidates use their personal characteristics as tools or weapons against their opponent.

It may seem pessimistic to think our country as a whole isn’t over racism, but Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at UCLA, thinks race may play a bigger factor in the polls than anyone could imagine.

“The racism we’re talking about is huge, and it’s a bigger problem than anyone likes to admit,” he said. Referring to the “unconscious racism” in America, Goff explained that some believe sexism is part of our culture and is consistently played down on shows like Saturday Night Live.

Since the Democratic primary, Bonnie Erbe of said, “He [Obama] has clearly been attacked on the basis of his race, but not as thoroughly as was Clinton for her gender.”

With such a deeply rooted culture of sexism and racism, it’s hard to say if either will sway this year’s election. This is the first election where both race and gender have been at the forefront of public discourse, in itself a huge collective step forward for the United States. But the fact that race and gender are such divisive issues also serves as a sobering reminder of how far we still have to go.

Academic Roundtable
The question of identity politics has dominated the latter part of the 2008 presidential race. Ongoing dialogue in the mainstream has been careful and tentative, but constant. What are the effects of Obama’s campaign and his historic run? How has Sarah Palin’s gender and motherhood affected voters views of her? University of Massachusetts faculty weigh in on an election where race, gender and identity cannot be separated from the major issues.

From left to right: Professor John Bracy, Afro-American Studies; Associate Professor Banu Subramaniam, Women’s Studies; Professor Nicholas McBride, Journalism.

Note: Click on a quote to launch the video. Adobe Flash required.

Produced by Richard Caesar, Ashleigh Bennett, Hollis Smith, Solmaaz Yazdiha and Robert McLeod. Graphic design by Jackie Hai.
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The Identity Ballot