With former first lady and New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama still waging strong, rival campaigns for the Democratic Party's nomination to be President, experts say there is a good chance American voters will elect the first female or first African American president this November. Political scientists believe a real change is occurring in voters' attitudes toward historic racial and gender barriers in American politics, and the 2008 competition is shaping up to be a presidential campaign like none before it. VOA's Rob Sivak has a report by Mohamed Elshinnawi.
"This year we are now guaranteed that at least on the Democratic (Party) side, there is going to be an unconventional candidate, somebody (who) comes from an unusual background.," says Darrell West, Professor of Public Policy at Brown University and director of the school's Public Opinion Laboratory.
West points out that in the 1950s, only 37 percent of Americans said they would vote for an African American for president. By the 1990s the percentage of American voters who said they were ready to vote for a black person, a woman, a Catholic or a Jew for president rose above 90 percent.
West acknowledges that these views don't necessarily mean there is no prejudice against minority candidates. He says that voters may say they are willing to vote for a woman or for an African American, but in the privacy of the voting booth, they will do otherwise. But West's analysis of voting patterns during the early primaries persuades him there has been a change in voters' attitudes.
West points out that "about 80 to 90 percent of the Democrats voted either for a woman or for an African American," before John Edwards pulled out of the race on January 30. "If they just wanted to go with the white male, then John Edwards would have been the nominee. But he pulled no more than 10 or 15 percent in most of the previous states, so I think that this really reflects a change not just in attitude but a change in voting behavior on the part of many Americans."
Professor West thinks that voting patterns are still powerfully affected by gender and race. He notes that Hillary Clinton has been very popular with women voters in the current primary campaign; Barack Obama has been drawing very strong support from African-Americans. But West says there are women who have voted for Barack Obama and there are African Americans who have cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.
He also detects a huge generation gap in voting: while voters under 35 years of age have favored Obama and supported him in large numbers, Clinton has done very well among voters over 50 years of age.
Professor West believes much of the change in U.S. voting patterns is due to what he terms Bush fatigue, widespread voter unhappiness after seven years of the George W. Bush presidency. "I think Bush laid the groundwork for broadening the pool of current candidates because there is so much dissatisfaction with the job that he did, that people were willing to consider alternatives that previously would not ever have had that good of an opportunity." West adds, "It is not like white males have done such a great job running Washington D.C! And so voters now are more open to a female president or an African American president."
But some analysts remain cautious about the political road ahead. Professor Paula McClain, co-director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender at Duke University, acknowledges there's been change in American voter attitudes. But she recalls how hopes of electing an African-American president have been raised and dashed repeatedly in recent decades — most famously, perhaps, with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson's unsuccessful 1984 run for the White House.
McClain says she is "cautiously optimistic that the U.S might be at a point where it will be willing to elect a black president." But her sense is that although there have been a lot of changes in the U.S. in terms of race, those changes do not necessarily translate into "a sizeable portion of white Americans being willing to vote for a black candidate."
McClain predicts that issues of race — which were prominent before the multi-state Super Tuesday primaries — will continue to influence the rival campaigns all the way through the party convention in late summer. Professor McClain predicts that if Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, issues of race are likely to be a part in the general election against the Republican candidate. If Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, McClain believes her gender will almost certainly become an issue
Whoever ends up winning the Democratic nomination and facing a more traditional white male rival on the Republican side, the 2008 presidential election is already one for the history books.