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Fiona Lee
  Fiona Lee
 

Identity Politics

10/30/2008 --

Race and gender color voters' perceptions of Obama and Palin.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Even among young voters receptive to Barack Obama and Sarah Palin's historic candidacies, race and gender may hurt—and help—their reputations, according to research by the Ross School's Fiona Lee.

Lee, associate professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business, and University of Michigan doctoral student Cathleen Clerkin found that voters have inherent beliefs about the compatibility between social identities and political leadership, which in turn, color their perceptions of political candidates.

"When evaluating the issues that candidates would be most and least effective, voters seem to rely on the candidates’ biology more than party or ideology," said Lee, who is also a professor of psychology. "We found very compelling data that voters' ratings of political candidates' effectiveness on a variety of issues—ranging from national defense to foreign policy to social welfare—are strongly influenced by the candidates' race and gender.

Lee and Clerkin asked 182 U-M students to comment on a hypothetical presidential race between Obama, Palin, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

The students were a diverse group but more liberal than the nation as a whole: 36 percent identified themselves as liberals, 27.5 percent said they were moderately liberal, 28 percent said they were moderately conservative and 8.5 percent identified themselves as conservative. Forty-five percent were Democrats, 25 percent were Republicans and 30 percent were independents.

The researchers said the study found a large discrepancy between effectiveness on general issues and identity issues—especially for female politicians.

"This suggests that voters think that politicians with nontraditional identities will only be effective 'within their realm,'" Lee said. "This could turn into gender or racial discrimination among voters when it comes time to go to the voting booths.

"Besides the fact that they obviously have important implications for the current and future elections, these findings are also striking because previous psychological research does not suggest that minorities and women with 'conflicting' identities will be more effective in their realm. So these beliefs may be unfairly handicapping minority and female politicians."

A little over a third of study participants believed that leaders would feel conflict, and party affiliation didn't seem to matter. This difference in belief (conflict versus compatibility) drives voters' perceptions of effectiveness, the research found.

Participants were asked to rate each candidate on his or her effectiveness in dealing with multiple issues. Some of these issues were related to race (such as affirmative action), some were related to gender (such as equal pay for men and women) and some were issues that have general relevance (such as national defense or economic policy).

"We found that the distinctive, minority identities of the candidates predicted voters' evaluations about what types of issues on which they would excel and what types of issues with which they would struggle," Lee said.

Of all the political issues, Clinton and Palin were viewed as most effective on gender issues, while Obama was rated most effective on race issues. Biden was viewed as least effective on both gender and race issues.

Voters' evaluations and ratings of political candidates are influenced by what the candidates look like rather than what the candidates say, Lee and Clerkin say. Regardless of what political strategists and commentators might say about "playing the race card," minority political candidates are primarily defined by their distinctive gender or racial identities.

Gender-related issues where women candidates are found to have an advantage included equal pay regardless of gender, sexual harassment at work, women's rights, child care and domestic violence.

Race-related issues where Obama was found to have an advantage included the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, immigration issues, affirmative action, welfare reform and racial segregation issues.

General issues where neither gender nor race offered an advantage to a candidate included environmental issues, taxes, Iraq, health care and homeland security.



For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu