Barack Obama. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill Richardson. The field of minority and female candidates for president has never been so strong. But the question remains: Despite the expected presence of an African- American, a woman, and a Latino, will America in 2008 elect yet another male president of northern European descent?
No one can say for certain, but we hope this streak ends soon, because it’s important that America elect its leaders from the full breadth of talent available in its diverse population.
The indicators of change are encouraging. A 2005 poll by Siena Research Institute/Hearst Newspapers showed that 81 percent of respondents would vote for a female candidate. And a CBS News/New York Times poll from early last year found that nearly all Americans say they would vote for a woman for president from their own political party if she were qualified.
“The opportunities for female and minority candidates have increased,” says political scientist Thomas Carsey of Florida State University. “Barriers are breaking down at a broad level in society, and this is happening in politics as well.”
Today, female and minority candidates, he notes, are more likely to win state-level elections and succeed in the private sector—achievements that can be among the steppingstones to the presidency. They also have improved access to the nominating process, which is more open, Carsey adds.
Nonetheless, the simple fact remains that, from its inception, the American presidency has been an exclusive club. In addition to being males of northern European origin, all but two presidents were Protestants (John Kennedy was a Catholic and Richard Nixon was a Quaker) and all but one (James Buchanan) were married. Only Ronald Reagan was divorced.
And consider this. Since 1952, there’s been only one presidential election year in which the name Nixon, Dole, or Bush was not on the GOP ticket. (The exception is 1964, when Barry Goldwater and William Miller were trounced.) In fact, no Republican has been elected to the White House without either the name Nixon or Bush on the ticket since Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928! And should Senator Clinton win in 2008 and serve two terms, either a Bush or a Clinton will have been president for 28 consecutive years.
It is also worth noting that 10 of the 42 presidents—we call George W. Bush No. 43 because Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms and is counted twice—had the same last name as another president. In fact, eight came from the same family as another president. There were two father/son combinations—John and John Quincy Adams and George H.W. and George W. Bush. Benjamin Harrison was the grandchild of William Henry Harrison, and Franklin Roosevelt was a fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson were not related.
In addition to their gender, racial, ethnic, and religious homogeneity, presidents have come from only a few states. They shifted from the East to the South and West as Americans migrated. But for more than 40 years, with the exception of Gerald Ford, all the occupants of the White House have come from Southern or Western states. (The Nebraska-born Ford grew up in Michigan.)
Is America ready to change these patterns? We’re confident that it is, and that either a woman or a minority candidate will be elected to the presidency in a matter of years, not decades. It is certainly a distinct possibility for 2008.