A Gallup/USA Today poll of 1,006 Americans conducted by phone earlier this month tested exactly how intolerant American would-be presidential voters are prepared to admit to be to some stranger on the phone. While strenuously avoiding naming names by merely asking about generic characteristics a voter would never vote for, it found that Barack Obama (black, everybody's tolerant) moves forward with far more hope for success than do Hilary Clinton (woman, 11 percent say no way), Mitt Romney (Mormon, 24 percent), John McCain (great service to his country and all, but old—42 percent say no thanks), and Rudy Giuliani (two failed marriages, working on a third).
It's amusing to take the poll at face value, but not appropriate. Note, for example, that thrice married Giuliani has 50 percent support among polled Republican primary voters one-on-one against ol' man McCain, and a 41 percent overall approval rating. A robust 83 percent of Republicans in another poll say they'd be "comfortable" with him in charge. Yet this poll finds that 40 percent of self-identified conservatives wouldn't vote for a three-time groom, as wouldn't 30 percent of America at large.
No, this poll seems to mostly just mean that knee-jerk prejudice against Mormons, serial monogamists, and the old has better legs in 21st century America than prejudice against blacks. But there's no particular reason to believe that prejudice would hold up in the face of further knowledge and context about the candidates in question.
Nor is it that those prejudices are easier to speak of than those against, for example, blacks. As Dave Weigel has pointed out here on Reason Online, despite popular belief, there is no hard electoral evidence that Americans harbor a deep aversion to voting for a black candidate that they won't cop to (the so-called "Wilder Effect"). And Joe Lieberman, take note: a nation supposedly hungry for bipartisanship just might want a man who effortlessly straddles the worst of two parties. Also, don't sweat the Jewish stuff—only 8 percent of us will refuse to vote for you for that reason.
One big indication that some of the categories in the poll did not arise from pure scientific curiosity, independent of announced candidates, is checking out the set of prejudice-testing questions Gallup has been using since 1937. As of 1967, it only included "woman/black/Catholic/Jewish/Mormon." The thrice-married question is clearly aimed at Rudy with extreme prejudice—one wonders to whom, if anyone, are the "homosexual" (43 say no way) and "atheist" (paging Richard Dawkins: 53 percent refuse to refuse to believe) questions in the latest prejudice poll meant to refer? Hell if I know, but I bet we can count on all the non-homosexual/non-atheist candidates to make sure we we know with whom they're sleeping and to whom they pray.
While this particular poll simply isn't to be taken seriously, the larger idea of prodding Americans on what they refuse to tolerate from a president has great promise.
Grumpuses with a sense that "running for president" constitutes sufficient reason to refuse on principle to vote for someone ought to delight in this sort of polling, silly as it might seem: think of the possibilities in magnifying and hitting home in as many voters as possible good reasons to refuse to vote for any and all of them. Given enough information, surely we can all find something to hate about every single one of them. (I hope I'm not overestimating my fellow Americans.)
I'd be curious to hear how many of my countrymen would refuse to vote for candidates based on some substantive issues. My listing of these particular items neither means that I think the number would be significant, or even ought to be significant, nor does it mean I don't. It means that these are some things I think it would be more valuable for voters to have on their minds about candidates than age, marital status, or religion. So, would Americans vote for:
*Someone who voted to get us into a war that most Americans now see as a mistake? (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, John McCain, Tom Tancredo, Christopher Dodd, Chuck Hagel, among the more prominent).
*Someone who intends to make a push for government-sponsored universal health care one of his main concerns? (John Edwards, who wants to create a system for everyone "similar to Medicare) or A Republican candidate who instituted an insurance purchase mandate? (Mitt Romney, who is, by the way, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.)
*Someone who completely fouled up their one previous huge, national policy responsibility? (Hillary Clinton and our last brush with national health care.)
*Someone who has been a previous presidential candidate, but with a third party? (Ron Paul, 1988 Libertarian Party candidate).
*A Republican who supported public funding for abortion? (Rudy Giuliani)
*A governor who presided over general funds increases of over 23 percent—outstripping inflation and population growth by 5 percent—from 2004-06? (Bill Richardson.)
*Someone who believes and fervently acts on the belief that Americans should not be free to publicly express their opinions and feelings about presidential candidates free of complicated government interference? (John McCain.)
The point is not something as good-government sententious as "oh, why can't the media focus on the issues instead of irrelevancies?"—though I have no doubt it would be a great thing for the Republic if people were polled and reminded constantly of, say, the answers to this list of mostly unasked policy questions Dave Weigel put together.
The point is, if you really seriously want to make your voting decision based on someone being black or Mormon or old, it's easy to be sure you have the relevant information. In political markets, it's very hard to get whatever you might think you are choosing by voting. We frequently have little way of knowing what actual political action we will get out of a candidate, even if we have taken the trouble to study their pronouncements and the records of their advisors—which usually isn't worth doing given the minuscule effect any one of our individual votes have. Think of George W. "No nation building" Bush, a fiscally conservative Republican responsible for a brain-bustingly expensive expansion in public spending on medical care.
Thus, even those who might vote for John Edwards because of the universal health care scheme could very easily—indeed, very likely—end up not getting it. And no matter how much about George W. Bush we might in retrospect decide we would never have consciously voted for—hello, approval rating in the 30s—our buyer's remorse does us little good.
Our great need to know every bad thing about politicians beforehand, when it might possibly matter, is why much maligned "negative campaigning" and "attack ads" are so important. There are lots of good reasons for Americans who want liberty, fiscal probity, integrity, or a history of sharp forethought out of their leaders to never in a million years vote for a given candidate, and we can only rely on the competitive pressures of electoral politics to bring us the delightful politics of carping, petty and major, opening up as many wounds in the other politicians as possible. When it comes to people we are contemplating granting the insane powers of the modern American state, it's the patriotic duty of all of us—candidate, pollster, pundit, citizen—to remind everyone everywhere of every potential bad side of the candidate, from religion to gender to age to, say, actual politics.
We have another year at least to discover all the reasons why no American should ever even consider voting for the "viable candidates" out there. One of them, though, will win. And you can be sure the winner will go on to do many things that many, even most, Americans wouldn't have ever voted for. (In fact, well more than half of Americans, guaranteed, will not have voted for our next president.) But in politics, we don't get what we choose. We get whatever the person we choose chooses to give us, whether we like it or not.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.