"Is America Ready?"

12/18/2006 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Is America
Ready?" That's the question posed on the
cover of this
week's Newsweek
featuring Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama, a recent Newsweek poll,
and other recent national surveys conducted by Gallup, Fox News, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Rasmussen
and Cook/RT
. The question of whether U.S.
voters are ready to elect a woman, an African American - or a Mormon for that
matter - is something that political junkies will presumably continue to ponder
for the course of the 2008 campaign. For those pondering such a question now, let
me suggest a resource (and interview with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake)
and one possibly overlooked point (about the candidacy of Harold Ford,

In an interview
that aired over the weekend (via an AAPOR member), my long-ago boss Celinda
Lake spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about the challenges of asking the kinds of
questions included in most of the recent surveys. Although she was understandably vague, given
the nature of the brief interview, about how she arrived at her conclusions, Lake argued that 5 to 10 percent of voters lie on such
questions, giving "tell the interviewer what they believe is the politically
correct thing to say." She also made this notable observation:

It's very hard to poll now because
people are reading in partisanship. So
where Republicans and Democrats used to be equally supportive of a woman for
president, when you ask that now, Republicans are less supportive because they
assume you mean Hillary Clinton.

The same question - Is America ready for a woman or an
African American president - also came up at the post-election conference I attended
last week, and the four pollsters generally agreed that a race involving
Clinton or Obama was not likely to be about race or gender. Many pointed to the Tennessee Senate race as
evidence that the race of Democrat Harold Ford Jr. did little to limit his
appeal. Several panelists throughout the
day said that given the partisanship, Ford did as well as any Democrat could
have, adding that a candidate like Jim Webb won in Virginia only because
Virginia is less Republican than Tennessee.

The exit polls for Tennessee
and Virginia
tend to support that point. Both
Democratic candidates received exactly the same percentage of support from
Democratic partisans. Ford's race was
certainly no unique barrier to those that identified as Democrats, although
Webb did slightly better among independents (though one might quibble about the
statistical significance of that difference.
Similarly, in the Maryland
Senate race, African American Republican Michael Steele did precisely as well
among Republicans (94%) as Corker in Tennessee
and Allen in Virginia.


Of course, one point made by both Celinda Lake
in her NPR interview and Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman at the Cook
Conference is that people think of presidents, and evaluate potential
presidents, differently than Senators and Governors. As with all of the most interesting
questions, we will have to wait and see what the political future holds.