Race, Gender and the South Carolina Primary

Fri, January 25, 2008

Women in Politics


With the South Carolina Democratic primary upon us, I’m on pins and needles.

Maybe I’m naive, but I really hadn’t anticipated the whole ratcheting up of the gender vs. race issue with the Democrats in the way that it seems to be playing out.

But how can one avoid moving into the waters of identity politics when we have two identity firsts?

At her New York Times blog Domestic Disturbances, Judith Warner wonders:


[I]s it realistic even to hope – as both candidates appear to – that voters will make their ultimate choices based on policy, philosophy and personality differences, and not by falling back on gut-level feelings of racial or gender allegiance?

It might not be.

One pollster says the race and gender of the presidential candidates may play out in a less expected way in the voting booths of South Carolina than on the debate stage.

According to Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys:


[In South Carolina], nearly nine in ten said a candidate’s race didn’t matter – much like the answers of voters nationally when asked if they would be willing to vote for a black candidate for president.

But the responses are different when it comes to women. One in four voters in South Carolina said they would rather vote for a man – and on that question it didn’t matter whether or not the respondents themselves were men or women. 27 percent of men would rather vote for another man, but so would 23 percent of women. Hardly any women – or men, for that matter – said they would prefer to vote for a woman.

And it’s not just women and African-Americans who are wrestling with identity issues.

Lest we forget that we’re a nation born from the melting pot, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen at Time’s blog Work in Progress wonders what those who fall into more than one identity category should do:

I feel I have a lot in common with Barack Obama. He’s half white and half other, like me. In fact, his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, … is my own racial mix: half white and half Asian. He’s the closest to me in age among all the candidates. He and I both spent a lot of time in Asia and Hawaii growing up. I identify with him in many ways.

I feel I have a lot in common with Hillary Clinton. She’s a working mom and always was; I’m a working mom and always will be. She’s raised a lovely, grounded young woman, and I am striving valiantly toward that goal. Her husband, like mine, plays a wind instrument, although mine with somewhat greater proficiency. She and I both tend toward elephant ankles, though I’m hoping mine will subside after the pregnancy. I identify with her in many ways.

Herein lies a problem the media tells me I’ve been grappling with: in a presidential race now fraught with racial and gender politics, with whom does a minority woman identify?

And that’s the dilemma for the demographic that pollsters say Clinton or Obama or John Edwards need to win in South Carolina — black women.

A Zogby/Lifetime poll conducted during the time of the New Hampshire primary showed something interesting to add to the identity mix– while it was based on a relatively small sample, it showed that minority women were more compelled to vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman than they were to vote for Barack Obama as a minority.

But there are some who are also clearly are outraged at the perceived suggestion that black women will cast their ballots based either on race or gender. In response to a recent CNN story on the topic, one reader responded sarcastically:

Duh, I’m a black woman and here I am at the voting booth. Duh, since I’m illiterate I’ll pull down the lever for someone. Hm… Well, he black so I may vote for him… oh wait she a woman I may vote for her… What Ise gon’ do? Oh lordy!

So what roles will gender and race ultimately play in the South Carolina primary?

If I could answer that now, I’d be decorating my variety of vacation homes in luxury spots around the world! But it’s clear that even thought we’d like to think we only vote based on a candidate’s positions and philosophies, other differences play a role, as well.

Cross-posted from BlogHer.

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5 Responses to “Race, Gender and the South Carolina Primary”

  1. Blog Antagonist Says:

    I think issues of race and gender are much more polarized here in the South than the rest of the country might realize. It’s still very much a “good ole boy” mentality, though they put up a pretty good pretense of tolerance and equality.

    It does not surprise me at all that race and gender are more of a factor in the South Carolina primary. I would be surprised if it wasn’t.

  2. Mauigirl Says:

    I can understand the dilemma. I think it’s time for a woman president. And I also think it’s time for a black president. Since representatives of both of these are running, we can only go back to the usual: choose based on character, policies and platforms. I hope that’s what the voters do in all of the primaries, because that is what makes sense. If either wins, it will set a new precedent that will make the next one easier to set.

  3. MojoMom Says:

    I took on these issues on my Mojo Mom blog today. Let’s talk soon!

  4. margalit Says:

    For all your worry on race and gender in south carolina did it ever occur to you that the entire state has prevented two groups from voting by holding their primary on Saturday? Observant Jews (and yes, they DO exist in SC and Seventh Day Adventists are unable to vote on a Saturday. Those two groups have been completely ignored by the media, and by bloggers. It makes me SO FREAKING MAD.

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