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Scholarship & Creative Work

Identity politics: Sex, race color perceptions of Obama, Palin

Even among young voters receptive to Barack Obama and Sarah Palin's historic candidacies, race and gender may hurt — and help — their reputations, U-M research finds.

Psychology researchers Cathleen Clerkin and Fiona Lee found college students, like other voters, have inherent beliefs about the compatibility between social identities and political leadership, which in turn, color their perceptions of political candidates.

"When evaluating the issues that candidates would be most and least effective, voters seemed to rely on the candidates' biology more than party or ideology," Clerkin says. "We found that voters have inherent beliefs about whether being a minority — a woman or an African American — is compatible with being a political leader."

For example, Obama, the first African-American Democratic presidential nominee in the United States, was considered more effective on race-related issues but rated as less effective on national defense, economic policy, foreign affairs and a whole host of other political issues unrelated to race.

When voters believed that being a minority is compatible with being a political leader, however, perceived effectiveness on minority issues did not detract from perceived effectiveness on other issues.

"With so many 'firsts' in this year's primary and presidential races, we wondered how these identities play into voters' perceptions of these candidates," Clerkin says. "We found very compelling data that voters' ratings of political candidates' effectiveness on a variety of issues — ranging from national defense to foreign policy to social welfare —are strongly influenced by the candidates' race and gender."

Lee, a psychology and business professor and an expert on organizational behavior, and Clerkin, a doctoral candidate in psychology, asked 182 students to comment on a hypothetical presidential race between Obama, Palin, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Clerkin said the study found a large discrepancy between effectiveness on general issues and identity issues — especially for female politicians.

"This suggests that voters think that politicians with nontraditional identities will only be effective 'within their realm,'" she says. "This could turn into gender or racial discrimination among voters when it comes time to go to the voting booths."

Who will voters pick to tackle nation's health care problems?

Health care — cost and coverage — has been a hot topic among presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election.

But which candidate has a plan that likely-voters believe will make the biggest impact on the toughest health care problems facing the nation?

According to a report released by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, the majority of likely voters polled selected Obama as their top presidential pick to handle the country's biggest health care issues, including the high cost of health insurance, and the millions of U.S. adults and children without insurance.

There was one health care issue that voters age 65 and older felt McCain would be better equipped than Obama to handle: The high cost of prescription medications.

"When it comes to major problems confronting the U.S. health care system, voters tend to split along party lines when asked who they think will do a better job in the White House," says Dr. Matthew Davis, director of the National Poll on Children's Health. "We looked in particular at the problem of uninsurance among children, and found a strong party affiliation there too. But among all-important independent voters, Barack Obama had a strong margin over John McCain."

As part of the National Poll on Children's Health, likely voters also identified from a list of five, the top three health care problems facing the nation. Those top three are: High cost of health insurance (80 percent), affordability of prescription drugs (57 percent) and millions of uninsured children (56 percent).

Regardless of the health care problem, the National Poll on Children's Health shows likely voters appear convinced that Obama would do a better job as president than McCain, says Davis, associate professor of general pediatrics and internal medicine at the Medical School, and associate professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. When it comes to the specific problem of uninsured children, Obama wants to mandate coverage for all children with subsidies for families that can't afford to pay for coverage. McCain wants to give tax credits to families to buy health insurance, but his plan wouldn't mandate coverage.

Diagnosis: McCain's health care plan critical

Under Sen. John McCain's health care plan, more Americans may be able to get medical coverage, at least initially, but the gains will be negligible — and within five years, fewer Americans will be covered, a University business professor says.

McCain's plan would tax the premiums paid by employers for providing group health coverage to employees, replace the tax exclusion with a refundable tax credit for those who purchase coverage, and deregulate nongroup (i.e., nonemployer) insurance by permitting the purchase of policies across state lines.

However, eliminating the tax exclusion greatly would reduce the number of people who obtain health insurance through employers, because the price of job-based coverage would increase. In addition, administrative costs are much higher and benefits are lower for coverage in the nongroup market, says Thomas Buchmueller, the Waldo O. Hildebrand Professor of Risk Management and Insurance at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

"Moving toward a relatively unregulated nongroup market will tend to raise costs, reduce the generosity of benefits and leave people with fewer consumer protections," Buchmueller says.

Results of this research appear in the current issue of the journal Health Affairs.

The researchers say that under the McCain plan 20 million Americans would lose their current job-based health coverage because of the elimination of tax subsidies to employers. On the other hand, they estimate that 21 million people (including some who are currently uninsured and some who would lose employer-group coverage) would enroll in nongroup coverage.

Buchmueller and colleagues offer several ways to improve McCain's plan:

• Implement a publicly funded reinsurance program for the nongroup market that would make it easier for higher-risk people to buy coverage;

• Develop a set of health insurance purchasing organizations that would enable people to more easily shop for and enroll in coverage in the nongroup market using their tax credits;

• Modify the tax credits so that the value of the credit is greatest for those with low incomes, thereby increasing the number of people who could afford to purchase coverage; and

• Index the size of the tax credit to the cost of health care, which would check the extent to which coverage would erode over time.

Michigan residents continue to favor Obama in new Big Ten poll

Barack Obama holds a double-digit lead over John McCain among Michigan and Midwestern voters as the presidential race for the White House enters its final days, according to results from the Big Ten Battleground Poll released Oct. 23.

About 58 percent of a representative sample of 562 registered voters in Michigan polled Oct. 19-22 said that if the 2008 presidential election were being held that day, they would vote for Obama and Joe Biden. This compares to 36 percent who said they would vote for McCain and Sarah Palin.

A month earlier, the poll showed Michigan residents slightly favored Obama (48 percent) over McCain (44 percent).

"In recent elections, Michigan has been slightly more Democratic than the nation as a whole, and these October poll results for Michigan confirm this," says Michael Traugott, a U-M researcher and a Big Ten poll adviser.

Each candidate has the support of nearly nine in 10 of his partisans. This has remained the same as in the September poll; part of the lead derives from the fact that there are now more people who identify as Democrats than as Republicans.

Obama's lead in the region and nationally derives from Independents moving in his direction since the September poll. One month ago, they were evenly divided in the preferences, but in October about six in 10 preferred Obama.

Nationally, the Big Ten Battleground Poll shows Obama holds significant leads over McCain in the eight crucial Midwest states by 9 percentage points (52 to 43). The margin of error for the state polls was 4.2 percentage points, and 3.1 percent for the national polls.

"In September, we saw virtually the entire Big Ten as a battleground," says University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin, co-developer of "Now Obama is clearly winning the Big Ten battleground. The dominance of the economy as a top issue for voters is the overwhelming story."

Each sample consists of nearly 600 respondents in eight states that are home to the Big Ten Conference: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The sample included an additional 748 respondents from the remaining 40 states, not including Alaska and Hawaii. The total national sample consists of 1,014 registered voters.

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