News: A New Kind of President

Preparing for someone who's not a white male

Mark Bealer

Jane Anderson, who teaches political science at the University of Cincinnati, says U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton must overcome deeply held gender perceptions about the presidency if she hopes to win.

The African-American candidate and the female candidate that presidential history has waited for probably will be greeted with less regard for skin color or gender than predicted by popular wisdom, some experts say.

These developments are of mounting interest in Hamilton County, as both Democratic hopefuls might benefit from election trends that show Republican candidates plummeting from their once lofty heights since 2000.

As fundraising season for 2008 bounds into its second quarter, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois have been jockeying for president harder and more effectively than any minorities in the history of the electoral process.

Not since the Rev. Jesse Jackson won five state primaries in 1988 has an African American made such a strong run for the White House. Comparatively, no woman has achieved the legitimacy as a presidential candidate that Clinton already has.

"I don't think that (Clinton) has negatives associated with being a woman, but the negatives are of her being a Clinton," says Robert Smith, author of The Encyclopedia of African-American Politics and professor of political science at San Francisco State University. "But I don't think they'll play that big a role in the primary process."

A woman's assuming the front-runner position is strange in a historic context, but circumstances changed with Clinton, Smith says.

"She has enormous name recognition, and of course there is Bill," he says.

Obama brings a "fresh perspective" and a "fresh face," according to Peter Groff, director of the Center for African-American Policy at the University of Denver.

Obama's language of "equality as opposed to civil rights" has helped broaden his image, Groff says.

"He brings moderation — the new school," he says.

Power of perceptions
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke points to other trends that have little to do with race or sex.

"Newer and younger activists are most supportive of Obama, while older, more established politicos tend to be more committed to Hillary," Burke says. "(But) there are a lot of exceptions."

Clinton's performance so far is a strong indicator that sex might have passed as a barrier to the White House.

"On its face, with the baggage she brings, the fact that she still is the front-runner says that America probably is ready," Groff says.

But at least one expert said some gender prejudices will die hard.

"It is hard to divorce personality issues from gender and race issues," says Jane Anderson, who teaches political science at the University of Cincinnati. "Your perception is both gendered and racially determined."

Americans have a certain perception about the presidency, Anderson says.

"The president of the United States is in a position that is 'male,' " she says.

The importance of foreign policy in the upcoming campaign could increase the importance of the perceived "maleness" of the candidates.

"He is the commander-in-chief, president of the military," Anderson says. "It is a real hurdle for her: trying to create that aura of a decisive chief executive."

Obama's campaign also faces unfriendly precedent.

"Even within your own party, there has been a reluctance to vote for an African American," Groff says.

He noted progress, however, as 2006 saw a record number African-American candidates.

Because of Obama's high polling numbers, experts are paying close attention to the possible emergence of the "Bradley effect," named after Thomas Bradley, an African-American candidate who polled extremely well only to lose the 1982 California gubernatorial election.

"There is this notion that white voters will respond the politically correct way in polling, but in the secrecy of the voting booth they will respond differently," Smith says.

The strengths of Democratic presidential candidates have long been largely irrelevant in Hamilton County, a sure thing for Republican candidates for many years. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the county was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Hamilton County even twice voted against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and '40s.

However, as Republican faithful have moved to surrounding counties and dissatisfaction with President Bush and the Republican Party grows, the gap between the GOP and the Democrats is fast closing in Hamilton County. From 1980 through the 2000 election, Republicans routinely walloped Democrats by an average of approximately 16 points. But by 2004 that number was whittled down to a mere 5-point separation between Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

"I think it has already been seen in the last two presidential elections and also in the last (2006) election," Burke says.

He points to the Hamilton County majorities won by Dr. Victoria Wulsin in her unsuccessful 2nd District congressional run and by Jennifer Brunner, who became Ohio Secretary of State by beating Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann despite his local advantage in name recognition. Democrats also hold two of three seats on the county commission for the first time since the early '60s.

"White flight has made the county politically more competitive," Burke says. "It is not blue, but it is not bright red any more."

An early lead
An independent poll of Ohioans by Quinnipiac University on March 22 showed Democratic candidates Clinton, Obama and John Edwards with a slight edge over Republicans. The poll, which matched the three top candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties against each other, sampled 1,122 registered voters using a method called random digit dialing.

"In a presidential election, Ohio is probably the most important," says Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the polling institute. "It is difficult for either party to win the White House without Ohio."

The poll showed Clinton defeating Rudolph Giuliani by 46-43 percent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 46-42 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 51-32 percent.

Obama tied with Giuliani at 42 percent but led McCain and Romney 45-37 percent and 51-26 percent, respectively.

State Sen. Eric H. Kearney (D-Cincinnati) says Hamilton County voters are responding to Obama's campaign.

"The barometer that has been established so far was on a Monday morning at 7:30 a.m.: 1,000 people showed up to (an Obama fundraiser)," Kearney says. "People who have been around for years said that they had never seen that."

A well-known supporter of the Clintons, attorney Stan Chesley, hosted a Clinton fundraiser that he says he had only 10 days to plan in late March. The event, featuring former President Bill Clinton, raised roughly $400,000.

"In (Bill's) first four years, while he was working on domestic issues, now-Senator Clinton went to 82 countries and made incredible relationships," Chesley says.

He said he expects Hillary Clinton to visit Cincinnati in May or June.

At Kaldi's, a coffee shop and urban hangout in Over-the-Rhine, some locals have already begun to form opinions about Clinton and Obama.

"Hillary is now part of the establishment," says Eric Puryear of Brighton. "Her rhetoric — which Bill excelled at, the language of negotiating to polls — she is doing it without the finesse that Bill did it with. She seems so scripted."

Christina Grisham of Clifton has a different way of putting it.

"I will not vote for Hillary," she says. "She's already had her two terms." ©