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Note to student journalists: Google is your friend

A student journalist called me with some questions about when the U.S. would have a female president. At one point she asked if there were any surveys of whether people would vote for a woman. I suggested she try Google. I was by my computer anyway so typed “what percentage of americans would vote for a woman president” (without the quotation marks), and the very first hit was this from Gallup, from 2007:

The Feb. 9-11, 2007, poll asked Americans whether they would vote for “a generally well-qualified” presidential candidate nominated by their party with each of the following characteristics: Jewish, Catholic, Mormon, an atheist, a woman, black, Hispanic, homosexual, 72 years of age, and someone married for the third time.

Between now and the 2008 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates — their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be …, would you vote for that person?

Yes, would
vote for

No, would not
vote for












A woman









Married for the third time



72 years of age



A homosexual



An atheist



The Republican frontrunner, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, is Catholic, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, currently running second in the Democratic nomination trial heats, is black. Americans express little hesitation about putting a person with either of those backgrounds in the White House — 95% would vote for a Catholic candidate for president and 94% would vote for a black candidate.

Rudy Giuliani as frontrunner, huh? Talk about a blast from the past. America’s mayor, indeed.

To be serious for a moment, though: Numbers like that make it clear how little information is in these survey questions. As cognitive psychologists have learned in their research, people tend to set their general attitudes aside when confronted with particular cases. For example, 42% of respondents said they would not vote for a generally well-qualified 72-year-old. Given that McCain did about as well as might be expected given his party and economic conditions, it’s hard to believe that he was starting off the election 42 points in the hole. Similarly, I don’t take seriously the idea that 24% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon or that 53% would not vote for an atheist.

P.S. Yes, a graph would be better than a table. I copied-and-pasted the table. If you want to pay me to write this blog, I’ll make a graph for you.

P.P.S. I’m not trying to be mean or sarcastic here. If you’re a journalist, it can be great to interview an expert. But you’ll get a lot more out of the interview if you google yourself up to speed first.


  1. Henry says:

    I suspect the numbers reflect a large degree of social desirability bias. I’m sure there’s a lot more prejudice against blacks than there are against older people or the thrice-married. But to admit to being prejudiced against blacks is practically akin to admitting one is a child molester, while it’s not nearly as bad to say the same about old people or serial marriers.

  2. John says:

    I think there are two things going on here, social desirability bias and attribution of the specific attribute to the canadidate that embodies it. There was discussion about this same thing in the 2008 primaries when you had the potential for several “firsts”. Social desirability bias was always an issue in these discussions. This is actually a counter point to the journalist using Google (without follow up). They may not understand the nuance around the information they have just found.

    BYU did do an interesting experiment to try and get around these issues. Note, they didn’t eliminate social desirability bias but I think they did reduce it. They had a list of attributes that one might see as being undesirable in a President. (Committed a crime, etc.) They asked respondents to consider the list and just give them the number of attributes which if a candidate had, it would mean they would never vote for that candidate. They didn’t ask for the specific attributes just the number. So they asked a first sample a baseline list. This established a baseline. They then asked a second sample the same list with one of the test attributes (being Mormon, for example) added to it. From that they were able to determine an estimated level for the attribute. They repeated this across different attributes using a new sample for each attribute.

    I don’t remember the exact results but they didn’t mimic the self-expressed results.


  3. Kaiser says:

    There is also a technique called randomized response which I wonder if it’s ever used in real polls. You tell all respondents in advance that their responses are “hidden” in the sense that a certain proportion of polltakers will be randomly selected and asked to give a “forced response” regardless of their own answer to the question while the remaining respondents will be asked to give their real answer. If the respondents trust the poll takers, then in theory, they should be more willing to give their honest answers while it’s a simple matter for the pollsters to remove the forced responses and get aggregate estimates of the responses.