By Kathy Kemper
Political strategists are both fascinated with and befuddled by this year’s election dynamics. There are at least three factors at play, and it’s not clear at all how they’ll interact.
The first factor – the elephant in the room – is race. When a black candidate and a white candidate run against each other, white voters often tell pollsters that they haven’t decided who they’re going to vote for or that they intend to support the black candidate, only to vote for the white one on election day (this is the so-called “Bradley effect”). Will McCain get a boost from this phenomenon come November 4th?
The second factor – a growing elephant in the room – is gender. Will the Palin effect last or fizzle away in the weeks ahead? The only precedent that we have is 1984, when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. Mondale’s campaign initially got a boost from her selection, but Ronald Reagan ended up winning in a landslide. Ferraro was an unwavering Democrat. Palin is a staunch Republican. Making matters even more complicated is that Palin is, in many ways, the quintessential liberal. She’s hip and sexy, she’s a devoted mother of five children, and she led the fight against big oil companies as governor of Alaska.
Will disillusioned Hillary fans continue to support Obama publicly but then vote for McCain? That would support the idea that there’s a Bradley effect of sorts for gender. There’s another possibility: Will people turn against McCain’s ticket because Palin is a woman? Although the United States is the world’s most advanced democracy, it has never had a woman occupy one of the two top elected positions. Ironically, many illiberal countries have had female prime ministers. What accounts for that disparity?
If Obama wins, will his victory signify that America has transcended racial stereotypes once and for all, that America is sexist for not electing a ticket that has a woman on it, or that the reality is some combination of these explanations? One could ask parallel questions in the event that McCain wins.
The third factor, which people don’t talk about much anymore, is age. When it was just Obama vs. McCain, the pundits talked endlessly about the fact that the former is 47 years old and the latter 72. This election, it was held, was supposed to come down to freshness vs. experience. Obama softened criticisms of his inexperience by picking Joe Biden as his running mate, and McCain, ever the maverick and risk taker, picked a 44-year old dark horse candidate.
Will we see the first black man in 232 years become President of the United States? Or will we see a woman finally earn the American people’s confidence? At this point, there are far more questions than answers. Whichever way it turns out, however, this election will send a huge statement to the world, and will tell us how far we’ve come in overcoming many of our worst prejudices.
Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation, headquartered in Washington, D.C., U.S.A, that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.