Posted on May 24, 2019

Democrats Don’t Want to Nominate a Candidate Who Looks like Bernie or Joe

Gabriele Magni and Andrew Reynolds, Politico, May 24, 2109

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With shifting attitudes and demographics among the Democratic base, is a straight white man really what the party wants in this moment? We did some research, and it turns out that even among white male voters in the Democratic primary, the answer is no. {snip}

Evaluating voter attitudes is tricky. All candidates present a bundle of characteristics that are often correlated. Biden is not only a white man, he is also older with a lot of political experience. Pete Buttigieg is gay, but he is also a white man, young and religious. For this reason, it can be hard to disentangle to what extent each candidate characteristic influences vote choice. And when you survey people, respondents often provide untruthful answers they consider to be socially acceptable. For instance, a voter may dislike a black or a gay candidate but be reluctant to openly admit that for fear of looking racist or homophobic.

To address these challenges, we engineered an experiment. In a large, nationally representative survey at the end of 2018, we presented respondents with pairs of hypothetical candidates and asked them to vote for their preferred ones. In the survey, we randomized candidate gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religion, education, age, health and political experience. Because of that randomization, we can estimate the independent effect of each candidate characteristic (for example, being gay) on vote choice while controlling for other attributes (such as being a young, white, religious, man).

What we found was that, at least in the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, candidates are likely to be viewed more favorably for being nonwhite and nonmale—but not for being nonstraight.

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Notably, women like female candidates more (plus 8 percentage points)—but so do men (plus 5.3 percentage points).

Black and Latino Dems—who, together, are about a third of the primary electorate—prefer candidates of their own race by a substantial margin (plus 14.8 and plus 7.3 percentage points, respectively, over whites). But even white voters show a preference for black and Latino candidates (plus 0.7 percentage points and plus 2 percentage points, respectively). {snip}

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These survey results challenge existing studies on the role of identity and bias in candidate preferences. Past political science research has found that female candidates win at similar rates to male candidates, but that’s only because the women who enter races tend to be better candidates independent of gender. Based on our study, in this primary, women are actually preferred because of their gender, independent of other attributes. Similarly, when it comes to minority candidates, existing studies are on balance more negative and show that nonwhite candidates have often been penalized, especially by the white electorate. In 2019, however, most Democratic voters—including whites—say they would prefer minority candidates over their white counterparts. {snip}

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So why then are two white men leading in the polls? Our findings give us probabilities based on the demographic traits of hypothetical candidates “all else being equal.” But in the real world, all else is not equal—the real race involves Biden, Harris, Sanders, Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and other candidates with specific histories, skills, foibles and policy positions. And right now, two white guys are in the lead, regardless of what Democratic primary voters prefer in the abstract.

It’s possible that, when presented with real names and backgrounds, Democrats stick with white men because of subconscious biases that affect their judgments of the character, history or “likability” of women and minority candidates. Or it could be that Democratic primary voters who prefer a nonwhite, nonmale candidate believe it’s safer to choose a white man for the general election. {snip}

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