More than any recent election, the 2008 presidential contest raises the issue of whether Americans are ready to vote for a ... (woman, black, Hispanic, Mormon) for president. In 1960 Kennedy's Catholicism was a key question. In 1984 Geraldine Ferraro gave us the possibility of a woman a "heart beat away", if not quite in the oval office. With at least four "group" members in the race this year, the question of what groups are acceptable and not is again before us.
The data are pretty clear that women and African-American's have gained acceptance, at least in the abstract. In data collected since 1956 by Gallup, and more recently by a variety of other pollsters, we can track changes over time to the question (as phrased by Gallup):
If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be ______, would you vote for that person?
Most pollsters use a similarly worded question. (Interestingly Gallup used "well qualified MAN" rather than "person" until the 1990s, except of course when asking about a female candidate.) The graph above shows trends in these questions for all groups and all pollsters I could find since the 1950s, 144 questions in all.
The striking effect of Kennedy's campaign and election is clear. While about 70 percent of the public said they would vote for a Catholic from 1955-1959, this jumped over 10 points following Kennedy's election. (62% said they would vote for a Catholic in 1940, the earliest poll I could find.) Since then it has gradually risen to a plateau in the mid-90s, though still slightly below the number comfortable voting for a "Baptist", the long time favorite in this graph.
Support for Jewish candidates has remained a bit below that for Catholics, maintaining a small but reliable gap. Interestingly, Kennedy's Catholicism may have helped increase acceptance for Jews as a side effect of the nation's consideration of religion in 1960. The upturn in acceptance of Jews as candidates tracks with the rise of Catholic acceptability in the early 1960s.
Mormon's may or may not have benefited from that movement as well. I could locate no questions about Mormon candidates prior to 1967 so we can't know what the trend was in the 1950s or early 1960s. In 1967, however, acceptance of Mormon candidates ran about 7 points behind that of Jews, and closer to 15 points behind Catholics. In the time since, there have only been two repetitions of the Mormon question (that I could find), and these two indicate stability through 2000 and a decline in 2007. With only 3 polls, it is very dangerous to conclude that there has been a real decline, or even to claim a very good estimate of the acceptability of a Mormon candidate. But given the little evidence that is available, Mormons clearly face more resistance from the public than Catholics or Jews (not to mention Baptists.) Governor Mitt Romney's campaign gives us an excellent chance to see if this resistance is primarily because voters haven't thought about it, and once confronted with an attractive candidate, as with Kennedy, will revise their opinions, or if this represents more strongly held suspicion of Mormons that will continue to register in the polls.
The one religiously defined group that should probably not jump in the presidential race is atheists. The public remains strongly opposed to putting non-believers in the White House. Despite some growth in tolerance of atheists this group still is acceptable to only just over 45% of the public. Homosexuals are the only group less acceptable than atheists, but that appears to have changed by 1999 when homosexual candidates gained acceptance by 59% of the public. (Again, beware the small number of polls that have asked about homosexuals. This is not a very reliable estimate, based on only four polls.)
The two groups that have moved most dramatically are not religiously defined. Women and blacks have moved from 50% or less support in 1955 to currently high acceptance rates. Blacks have in fact moved up to match Catholics and perhaps even Baptists in professed willingness to vote for a member of the group. Women were on a similar trajectory until recently. Since 2000 there has been some modest decline in acceptance of women candidates. It is possible that this is due to voters thinking of Hilary Clinton specifically in response to this question recently, raising a partisan bias, or it could be a fluke in the most recent half dozen polls. I've not located polls asking about support for an Hispanic candidate so not trend or other data are available on that for comparison.
The overall rise across most of these groups in willingness to vote for candidates from the group reflects some important changes in society over the past 50 years. The relative stratification of groups, however, is also generally stable. The order of acceptability--- Baptist, Catholic, Jew, Mormon and atheist--- has not shifted even as level of acceptance has risen. Women, blacks and perhaps homosexuals have seen dramatic rises, with the first two groups changing order with other groups. Still, the stratification remains clear, if reduced in magnitude. And some groups such as atheists and homosexuals remain well short of widespread acceptance as potential presidential candidates.
It is also worth noting that this measure of potential vote does not mean that in the actual choice these characteristics are irrelevant to voting decisions. Presented with an actual woman, black, Mormon, Jew or Hispanic, each of these categories may still produce a reduction in the probability of voting support. At least if the opponent is a Baptist male. It seems likely than only the election of presidents from these categories can assure us that such categories have become irrelevant in fact.
The Romney campaign offers the best opportunity for a natural experiment to see how malleable these perceptions may be. Note that the acceptance of Catholics did not increase until after the 1960 election. The last time the Catholic question was asked in Gallup data was December of 1959, and not again until August 1961. We are left to wonder if Kennedy increased acceptance during his nomination race and/or during the general election or if this change occurred only after he was elected president. Romney will have to overcome the resistance to Mormon candidates, and with the huge increase in polling, we should be able to use his race as an opportunity to learn something about how rapidly such attitudes can change, or not. Let's hope pollsters will monitor this question for us. Interesting social science, in any case.