This past Sunday, I threw a Super Bowl party attended entirely by Giants fans, except for this guy. As a rabid Eagles fan, I was distraught about having to purchase Giants paraphernalia to decorate the apartment, and clapped half-heartedly when New York's David Tyree came down with the most amazing catch I'd ever seen. When prodded about my lack of enthusiasm throughout the game, I diplomatically responded, "I just want to see a good game."
That was a lie. But I'd like people to think that I'm loyal enough to New York City, my temporary hometown, to pull for the Giants (I'm not) and that I'm not so petty as to root for Goliath simply because David is a rival that hails from the same division as my beloved Birds (I am). Rather than voicing my true feelings, I gave the socially desirable answer (given the context) to maintain the illusion of household united behind the G-Men, even though I intentionally wore green for the game as a subtle thumb in the eyes of my guests.
At the end of the day, disguising my preferences was of little consequence, but aggregating the preferences of voters who give false, yet socially desirable responses threatens the reliability of public opinion polls and force Americans to examine how far we've actually come as a nation on race, gender, ethnicity, and other historically divisive issues. Most famously, in Virginia's gubernatorial race in 1989, L. Douglas Wilder, a Black candidate, was shown to hold a ten-point lead in exit polls, but won election by less than a percentage point. The reason: a significant portion of White voters cast their ballots for his White opponent, but told interviewers (particularly Black ones) that they supported Wilder, so as not to appear racist. These equivocations occurred most frequently when the interviewer was Black.
Barometers measuring America's readiness for a Black president may suffer the same affliction. Part of the disparity between racial groups—72% of Whites answered in the affirmative, as opposed to only 61% of Blacks—may stem from Whites' real or imagined incentives to cast America as a nation that has moved beyond race, even if they hold reservations about that view. By contrast, the relative skepticism of Black voters might be driven by events like the Wilder incident, and the desire to give a "real" answer about America's willingness to support a Black candidate in a general election—one that may exaggerate their true feelings about the unlikelihood of such an occurrence.
Thus, how tonight's exit polls (and the aforementioned CNN poll) jibe with actual election returns will be telling. Though voter behavior in the Democratic primary will hinge primarily on get-out-the-vote operations, messaging, etc., Super Tuesday will offer some insight into America's progress on race and gender. Do the same Whites that expressed a willingness to support a Black candidate automatically skitter to Hillary Clinton without a White male in the race? Does Barack Obama attract males with a gender bias against Senator Clinton? My hope is that voters decline to use such reductionist calculations, mirroring the maturation of the electorate reflected in the polls, or at least own up to whatever prejudices they maintain. In other words, regardless of who wins, I just want to see a good game. Seriously.