Public opinion polls show consistently that a substantial portion of the American public would vote for a qualified female presidential candidate. Because of the controversial nature of such questions, however, the responses may suffer from social desirability effects. In other words, respondents may be purposely giving false answers as not to violate societal norms. Using an unobtrusive measure called the “list experiment,” we find that public opinion polls are indeed exaggerating support for a female president. Roughly 26 percent of the public is “angry or upset” about the prospect of a female president. Moreover, this level of dissatisfaction is constant across several demographic groups.
Here’s the experiment, which was conducted in a March 2006 poll. One half of the sample is asked how many of the following things make them angry or upset.
- The way gasoline prices keep going up.
- Professional athletes getting million dollar-plus salaries.
- Requiring seat belts to be used when driving.
- Large corporations polluting the environment.
Then the second half of the sample is asked the same question, with one additional item on the list:
- A woman serving as president.
The difference across the two groups in the mean number of “things that make you upset” gives us the percent of the public that is upset about a woman president. That fraction—26%—is much larger than extant polling would lead you to believe.
Notably, the percent who are upset does not vary much based on respondents’ gender, level of education or income, age, or region. The only remaining question is whether it varies by party identification, to see whether people who read “A woman serving as president” are really thinking “Hillary Clinton serving as president.” Unfortunately, the survey did not include a measure of party identification. However, it’s worth noting, as Sreb et al. do, that generic polling questions have not revealed any recent decline in the fraction who would vote for a woman president, despite Clinton’s candidacy.
There is more interesting discussion in the paper. See also here for a list experiment that reveals substantial racial prejudice.