The X Factor: Bias and the Election

This year’s presidential election is unique, even historic, in part due to the personal demographics of the candidates themselves — with race, gender and age playing a prominent role for three of the four names across the two tickets.

Barack Obama, of course, is the first African-American major-party nominee for either president or vice president. Sarah Palin is only the second woman on a major-party ticket, after Geraldine Ferraro, the Democrats’ vice-presidential choice in 1984. And John McCain, at 72, is the second-oldest major-party nominee in presidential election history, after Bob Dole, who was a year older when he was nominated in 1996.

In fact, in the five previous elections before this one (1988 through 2004), every nominee was a white man, and all except Dole were between 41 and 68 years old. (Dan Quayle was 41 in 1988; George H.W. Bush was 68 in 1992.) This time, only one of the four candidates, 65-year-old Joe Biden, fits that same mold.

And yet questions about how Obama’s race, Palin’s gender and McCain’s age affect the race have largely been muted, with voters and the mainstream media preferring to focus — publicly, anyway — on the candidates’ experience, ideology and stance on specific issues. To avoid talking about the candidates’ race, gender and age is to sidestep any potential charge of racism, sexism or ageism.

But those attributes undeniably have an effect on voters’ decisions and on the media’s coverage of the candidates. To get a better sense of what that effect has been, Adweek fielded an exclusive online survey with JWT, which asked 1,146 American adults 18 and over about their thoughts on the matter. The survey was conducted Oct. 3-7. Some of the findings are presented here.

JWT director of trendspotting Ann Mack and director of brand intelligence Mark Truss analyzed the data with Adweek senior editor Tim Nudd.