Apparently, this primary election is all about race and gender. So says the New York Times ("Polls of Democratic voters on Tuesday made it clear that the politics of identity—race, gender, class—was driving the contest between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton."), CNN, and, well, just about everyone in the mainstream news media world. While in some ways it's gratifying to see all this talk about identity politics as they're played out in the electoral arena—enough coverage inexorably leads to at least some nuance, by the law of averages and the critical mass of the echo chamber—but mostly, this "it's all about race and gender" line is, frankly, bullshit.

Look at the polls the Times is talking about: Obama won among white men and black folks of all genders; Hillary won among white women, Hispanics, and Asians. If you try rilly, rilly hard, you can read this as a straight-up identity-politics split, with white people voting their gender and black people voting their race. (Trying to tuck in the loose ends, conventional wisdom has it that Clinton's support among non-black voters of color has to do with those groups' anti-black racism.) But this so-called analysis depends deciding that when white men vote for Obama it's about gender, and when black women do, it's about race. How convenient for the so-called analysts—and also for those who like to forget that, yes, Virginia, white people have a race too. (Not to mention that some some of the differences pundits are touting are small: Hillary's Super Tuesday percentage of white votes was reportedly 53%, hardly a landslide.)

The fact is, voters are and have always crossed all sorts of identity lines in their voting (which should come as a big fat "duh" to any thinking person, given not just history but also statistics and the fact that races are generally run between only two people). In a contest that, unlike so many in our nation's past, actually includes candidates who aren't white guys, you could take any demographic poll breakdowns and spin an identity politics argument from them.

by Lisa Jervis
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

primacy and the primary

man oh man,
thank you Lisa Jervis! I'm so interested in this subject. There’s such an explicit connection between the primacy of identity and the way that identity is being used by the candidates and the media. The seeming divisions that are drawn along race and gender lines and HOW and WHERE they are drawn are so fascinating. In my mind if, according to conventional wisdom, it seems like white men and black people are voting for Obama, why not assume that white men are voting along gender lines based on the primacy of their male identity? It’s all so convenient… so true!!

I find the whole argument annoying, especially what the media does with it. Identity in this election is so obviously being used to whomever’s advantage, and all I can think is what about black women? I mean we know how Oprah and Mrs. Obama are voting, but… the question remains.

I just read the wall street journal article on the rift that the primary is causing among feminist groups. (from the journal…)

I want to hear what Maya Angelou has to say. For that matter, I want to hear what bell hooks and Angela Davis have to say. I can’t say that I have followed this election with anything more than an interested eye. For example, I don’t particularly know where each candidate falls on the issues, or the specifics of their previous voting records or associations.

In the scheme of things I’m more interested in the way that the public has reacted to the issues of gender and race. For example when TIME in partnership with CNN asks “Is Barack Obama Black enough” (whatever the hell that means), or Clinton’s victory in Connecticut being attributed to her tears and show of emotion. “Really?” becomes such a good questions, I mean… (exasperated sigh)...Really!?! Argh!!

Maybe it’s not such a ground breaking race if these are the questions on people’s minds. Or maybe there’s just far more ground to break.

Race, Gender, and Looks of Presidential Candidates


Your post describes the current presidential campaigns perfectly concerning race and gender at the primaries step of the contest, a contest that hopefully will not turn into a traditional beauty contest as the country transitions into the general election step. At the primaries stage, if at any step in the presidential election process, individuals who cast votes through secret ballot (and, to me, the ridiculous caucus procedures) can be expected to best know candidate’s policies; however calculated those policies may be to coincide with current day national elections.

At the general election stage of presidential election campaigns the national news media as well as late night entertainment shows frequently document how sadly humorous that voters in the general electorate are in terms of knowing policies and stands of the final major two candidates. And, maybe accordingly, history shows well that voters since Lincoln’s election have voted the most good looking candidate into the most powerful political office in the nation.

As your post points out so well, the current election campaign changes so much of the historical dynamics associated with electing a president in the United States. These include the introduction of a welcomed complexity that changes the face of the contest in terms of physical appearances and the inseparable dimension of physical attractiveness. Comparing the level of physical attractiveness of our candidates and then (despite denials about being influenced by good looks and not so good looks) casting votes based on a candidates physical attractiveness, is in this election quite changed.

Historically, the discomforting fact that more physical attractiveness equates with more votes to be president when the contest gets down to the final two within either the primary process or general election, is probably most apparent by the much heralded “good looks contest” between the generally acknowledged high physical attractiveness of John Kennedy and his counterpart in the looks arena, Richard Nixon. As apparent or blaring that that pairing might be in terms of good looks and not so good looks, the same pattern with less magnitude of visible differences has proven itself far more frequently than political science research would predict based on the democratic ideals voiced in our country.

Given a body of research more than a thousand studies strong, conducted and published in respected research journals in the United States and around the world, as well as simple observation of the popular culture around us, the power of physical attractiveness is apparent and too often prevailing….even though research shows time and time again that people either are either unaware of the impact of physical attractiveness in our culture and/or they deny their awareness because it discomforts them. It certainly conflicts with American democratic ideals that all people are created equal, when, in fact, people possessing higher physical attractive are accorded benefits throughout life while their counterparts of lower physical attractiveness are accorded corresponding detriments.

Back to the message of your post, a beautiful aspect of our current presidential contest is that a person’s level of physical attractiveness escalates quickly in complexity when it is no longer limited between two adult white men as in past presidential elections. And, in this wonderfully diverse country, determining what defines a person’s physical attractiveness becomes interesting more complex with the addition of serious presidential contenders of two highly visible factors—race and gender—with which physical attractiveness in inseparable. At the same time, it is important to keep aware that although many dimensions define the appearance of a person, the dimension of physical attractiveness is well documented to be the prevailing dimension. It much too often over-rules other visible factors that contribute to perceptions about trustworthiness, expertise, leadership ability, liking, and so much more that determine how a vote is cast.

Gordon Patzer
author of "Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined"

tsk, tsk, tsk....

Lisa, you’re a smart woman, I’ve placed you on my Christmas list.

Dr. Patzer, I think you are a wee bit too hooked up on looks and not giving the voters enough credit for looking beyond a nice set of choppers and pretty eyes to see at least some of the issues in question. You mention historical facts regarding the priorities of voters, stating Lincoln as an early example. Um, as I recall, and early Alzheimer’s has not set in yet, but Lincoln was not to say kindly and respectfully, a nice looking man. This is a historical fact and written about. And, in that era, there wasn’t the smothering media coverage that detected the slightest wardrobe malfunction or nose cleansing as they have today. It is even said, that Franklin D. Roosevelt would not have been elected, as President should his handicap been so visual.
Are there voters who judge? Absolutely. Hillary will do well, (taking all political aspects out of it) simply because she is… shall we say, well rounded. Good hips. She’s not a threat to many whimpering women who would like to go from a size 18 to a 2. I believe she is judged in looks more by women than men.
And please, once again you are giving little credit to the intelligence of the people to insinuate that they are either unaware of the impact of physical attractiveness in our culture and/or they deny their awareness because it discomforts them? (sigh)… I really hate when people try ignorantly to guess how I feel or think about situations. Gee, I don’t like that person and I won’t vote for them. Do you think it’s because I’m ugly? Yes, yes, yes Dr. Patzer… you study the field and you know best. But please with my little mentality, may I mention that within this years race there have already been several of your candidates who might, and I stress might, be considered on the top ten good-looking list of runners who have already dropped out. Where were their fan clubs when they needed them? At this point, and still hanging on by his crooked smile is Huckabee… any remarks as to why the women, or men, might have been so inclined to keep him around this long? In this case I would consider it’s his beliefs and the desires of the people. (and, I don’t mean the desire for the man’s body).
Also, I would not dream of discounting your thousands of studies and observations regarding the benefits of pretty people. Oh, the blessings that befall them. Or, are they supposed to be cursed? Anyway, in this particular political race, a truly historical race, the intelligence of the people, and in some, their stubbornness, may just outweigh the loyalty to gender and race. As we’ve seen so far.

Rose-colored glasses


I appreciate your time and effort to have composed your reply to my comment. As a point of clarification to a point that either I mis-wrote or you mis-read, the general consensus that I expressed in my comment is that Lincoln because of his downright physical unattractiveness would NOT have a chance to be elected today with our increased mass-media emphasis on looks combined with today’s ever scrutinizing visual media technology. In fact, as everyone generally agrees, he grew his famous beard to enhance his looks/physical attractiveness.

Another point that I either mis-stated or you mis-read in my message is that appearance is multi-dimensional and physical attractiveness tends to be the dominate visual feature of a person with effects that transcend gender and race. As difficult as that is to believe, the proverb that “actions speak louder than words” bear witness to this fact more often than I like.

Of course, all people, including presidential candidates, are composed of more than looks only. Particularly in politics, such factors as a person’s religious beliefs, let alone political perspectives, can certainly blind otherwise rational voters to all other considerations. When such strong sentiments are aroused in such people, nothing else, including looks, seem to matter.

I hope, like you state, that in this year’s truly historical presidential contest, that intelligence and awareness over-ride gender, race, and physical attractiveness. But I am less optimistic than you about the American voters as a group. However true it might be that voters in primaries know and care about the politics and stands of the candidates, this becomes less and less and less true as the campaigns advance to the general election stage. Too often, I fear, national news programs and late night talk shows will show us just how sadly humorously uninformed the voters as a group are in the United States.

Let me now ask you: If, and I know that is a big if, if John McCain were to win (a person who possess none of the traditional stereotypical looks of high physical attractiveness nor the stereotypical good looks of some of his earlier challengers), would his win then confirm your rose-colored-glasses view of American voters as a group who see beyond physical attractiveness?

Gordon Patzer
author of "Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined"

I like my glasses...

Dr. Patzer,

I stand corrected on the Lincoln issue. For I really could not understand how a person with your insight into what is considered beauty, would believe this past President anywhere close to that category. And thank heavens the man is dead, for I truly never would be discussing his looks so candidly or using him as an example of the unattractive were he alive!

Rose-colored glasses? Dr. Patzer, you hurt my feelings. My mentioning the intelligence of the American voters is only in stating they SHOULD be more intelligent than to choose a candidate on looks alone. I agree very much with your comments on a voter possibly focusing on one or two issues in which the candidate might stand, religion as an example. But there you go again… using that ‘blind’ word. Maybe I do have a set of rose-colored glasses hanging off my nose, for I can’t believe that, anyone being even just above mentally handicapped, could possibly have all the rational brain sucked out of their head because a candidate has the same belief as they do.

(sigh)… And again, I will have to state that I am in full agreement on how sadly uninformed many, many people are on everything regarding a candidate and their, (can’t say, ‘his’ anymore) issues when they walk into a voters booth. I’m also not sure if it’s healthy, but I do see a sort of morbid humor in the whole situation.

McCain and the Big If. I certainly don’t need the win of McCain to prove that I have some faith in people and the hope that they are not so shallow to vote on looks alone. And trust me, I know of your studies and I know the majority of your facts are accurate. Just allow me my little beliefs, will you. (adjusting rose-colored glasses) In closing, if McCain wins, I’ll consider moving back to Greece! Oh, and Dr. Patzer, has the word ‘majority’ bothered you any? :-)

My reply a few minutes ago.

I responded to your reply to me but I inadvertently forgot to nest my comment, so please see my reply above.

Thank you.

Gordon Patzer
author of "Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined"


I've appreciated both your original post and your follow-up reply to me. Whatever the semantic differences in our writings, our views and perspectives look to be on the same page.

And, I've not yet been to Greece, but it is certainly a location high on my list of travel interests.

Gordon Patzer
author of "Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined"


The New York Times has been biased towards Hillary Clinton from the start of the whole campaign. Just about every article about the election is a long "what's up with Hillary" story with a paragraph about the other candidates...and then, mostly responding to something Clinton has said or done.

What frequently is *not* mentioned, though, is the depth of Obama's experience, and the amount of work he's already accomplished in the Senate. While Clinton supports seem to have latched on to her rhetoric of being the more "experienced" candidate, I've yet to meet one who can name one of her accomplishments. This is not to say she doesn't have any - but it does point out that a whole lot of people don't seem to know why they're supporting here.

How so...

How is the NYT piece statistically wrong by saying that voters for Hillary and Obama generally fall into three categories: race, gender and class (for which the last classification your original blog seemed to just bi-pass)? The stats have held up pretty well in the majority of cases with a few exceptions like Virginia. By identifying who votes and how, you are not making any statements but just doing general stastical and political analysis. Of course one's race, gender and class do not predetermine who one will vote for, but knowing this information can be very helpful. Fore instance: Most candidates say they want to be uniters, now they know who she or he needs to better target to form a broader consensus.

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