Numbers Crunched

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May 12, 2008 8:49 p.m.
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A number of interesting details in the new WaPo/ABC news poll.

First, on the horse race, Obama beats McCain 51%-44% and Clinton beats him 49%-44%. Statistically speaking, those are basically the same margins. But I strongly suspect we will see Obama’s numbers moving ahead of Clinton’s in the coming days.

This is one factor that’s been too little remarked on — I’ve never plotted the numbers out on a graph but who does better against McCain has tracked consistently with who’s getting the winner and loser headlines in the primary battle. So, consistent headlines that communicate Clinton’s or Obama’s power, effectiveness, winner-hood for lack of a better word, push up his or her numbers vis a vis McCain. That’s not particularly surprising when you think about it. But it does put the softness and mutability of those general election horse race numbers into perspective.

Next up, age.

39% of Americans said they’d be uncomfortable with president who enters office at age 72, as McCain would, whereas only 16% think same about a female president and only 12% say so about a black president.

I don’t think there’s any question that questions like this yield a substantial amount of self-censoring among respondents. Social Scientists have a reassuringly unwieldy term for this — which escapes me at the moment. But basically, many people won’t say they’d be uncomfortable with a black president because they know they’re not supposed to think like that, even if they do. On the contrary, there’s no comparable social stigma associated with thinking that about someone past retirement age.

Still, even with that factored in, that’s a very big gap — and a big slice of the electorate for whom McCain’s age is a big issue. No doubt that’s why we’re hearing a lot of references from Dems about honoring McCain’s many decades of service to America.

Finally, there’s this …

While overall discomfort with an African-American president is much lower, it rises among less-educated whites – the same group that’s been a challenge for Obama in the Democratic primaries. Among whites who haven’t gone through college, 17 percent say they’d be at least somewhat uncomfortable with a black president; that compares with just 4 percent of white college graduates. Clinton may face a similar problem, however; less-educated whites also are more apt to be uncomfortable with a woman president (21 percent, vs. 7 percent of white college graduates).

Late Update: As a stream of helpful TPM Readers have reminded me, the term in question is “social desirability bias.” Like I said, a reassuringly unwieldy term.

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