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Expert: Warren May Have Lost Because Voters Overestimate Others’ Bias

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary race last week after performing worse than polls expected. The question of her "electability" as a woman candidate came up throughout her campaign. (ElizabethWarren.com)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary race last week after performing worse than polls expected. The question of her "electability" as a woman candidate came up throughout her campaign. (ElizabethWarren.com)
March 13, 2020

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Why are the last two major Democratic primary candidates older white men? According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology experiment, it's beyond their perceived "electability" against Trump: Many Americans misjudge others' level of bias.

Political science professor Regina Bateson conducted several experiments about peoples' perceptions of candidates based on gender and race in 2019 while she was at MIT - now, she's at the University of Ottawa. In one survey, Bateson asked a nationally representative sample if they thought other Americans would vote for a woman or person of color.

"People often overestimate others' levels of bias," says Bateson. "I think that's very much what's going on right now with this discussion of electability."

In her survey, respondents thought that 47% of other Americans wouldn't vote for a woman for president, and 42% wouldn't vote for a black person for president. But Bateson says that recent polls actually show those numbers as much lower: less than 10% of Americans say they wouldn't vote for a black or female president.

Bateson thinks this overestimation of bias, what she calls "strategic discrimination," could have impacted Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign.

Bateson mentions research that a firm called Avalanche Strategy did about the top Democratic primary candidates last June. At the time, the top three candidates were former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

When asked who was most electable, Biden won. But then, respondents were asked a different question.

"But then if you could take a magic wand, and you could make your preferred candidate the most electable, or you could remove concerns about their electability, then who would you prefer? And in that case, that was where Warren saw a big increase in their results, which were from mid-2019," says Bateson.

According to this "magic wand" question, Warren won.

In Bateson's research, she also asked people to rate hypothetical candidates, and randomly switched their gender between male and female and race between white and black. The white male candidates did the best, and men-of-color candidates performed slightly worse.

White women performed worse at a statistically significant level, and black women candidates had the lowest scores. Bateson thinks this suggests that gender and racial bias intersectionally harm black female candidates.

Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Public News Service - MA