A Reason to Be Cheerful

Gallup data measuring US voter prejudice goes back to 1937. They ask US adults: “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be {a woman, Black, a Catholic etc..}, would you vote for that person?”

The change since the 1940 electoral cycle, e.g. polls taken 1937-1940, is massive. In 1937, 64% of respondents (including women) said they would not vote for a woman, 47%  would not vote for a Jewish candidate. The comparable 2012 numbers are 5% wouldn’t vote for a women and 7% for a Jewish candidate. Still too high, but dramatically smaller.

Gallup framed their results negatively: “Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates” (Gallup 2012). I want to give a reason to be cheerful. Yes it still exists but look below at the chart of prejudice over time. Few trends relevant to political marketing are quite so powerful. Prejudice against female, black, Jewish and Catholic candidates has fallen precipitously.

A counter view is that nothing has changed; people are still prejudiced they just no longer admit to it. To dismiss the change seems unnecessarily pessimistic. In 1960, 51% said they would not vote for a “well-qualified” black candidate while in 2008 and 2012, more than half those who voted did so for a real African American candidate. (Real candidates perform worse than hypothetical “well-qualified candidates” as “well-qualified” is always debatable and real candidates never win over die-hards of the opposite party.) Furthermore I’d suggest social desirability concerns are by themselves evidence of progress. At least people know it is wrong nowadays, in 1937 most weren’t even ashamed of their prejudice.

I created the graph for groups for which there are over twenty data points. Many who face prejudice today therefore aren’t plotted, e.g. measuring attitudes to gay people is relatively new. That said even the fact that Gallup ask the question now is evidence of progress. An openly gay candidate in the US prior to 1962, when decriminalization of homosexuality started, would have faced jail not reluctant voters.

My headline:  The percentage saying they would not vote for a well-qualified woman has dropped from 64% to 5% in only a couple of generations. It might not be everything, but is surely a reason to be cheerful.

Deline of Prejudice
Technical note: I averaged data points in a cycle and interpolated missing data, e.g. if 1964 is missing the line connects 1960 to 1968.

Read: Gallup (2012), Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates, Published June 21 2012, By Jeffrey M. Jones, Accessed May 26th 2013