AMES, Iowa -- 2008 might be remembered for its hotly contested presidential election, but a group of Iowa State University faculty experts say it may be more historically significant as the year that the country broke down racial, gender or religious barriers in electing its president.
Current polling leaders include a woman in Hillary Clinton, and an African-American in Barack Obama among the Democrats; and a Mormon in Mitt Romney on the Republican side. Any of them will make presidential history with a win in November.
While that might indicate greater harmony among the country's diverse population, it may be more of a reflection of the desire for change.
"This election is coming off the 2006 election, which was really kind of a momentous election in the country in that people were interested in change," said Dianne Bystrom, director of ISU's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. "It was a lot like the 1994 election when the Republican revolution came about. But on this side of it, it was really the Democrats and people tired about the war in Iraq, people wanted something different in Washington, people tired of partisan politics and gridlock. And so that change element still seems to be carrying on into the 2007-08 process."
Obama is billing himself as the candidate of change and he has already changed the climate for an African-American to be viewed as a serious presidential contender. His strong candidacy may reflect a narrowing of the country's racial divisions according to an Iowa State historian.
"I think it reflects that we're less polarized because Senator Obama's a viable candidate," said Hamilton Cravens, an ISU professor of history who is writing a book on changing notions of race in America since reconstruction. The university's Distinguished Arts and Humanities Scholar, Cravens will spend the spring semester working on his book, which will trace the history of American attitudes regarding race, as they were expressed in politics and law, science, and pop culture, over three chronological eras since 1870.
"Race has always been kind of the third rail of American politics in society, and in particular, it's the black/white thing that's been so explosive over the years," he said.
But is Obama's candidacy legitimately bridging the racial divide?
"We'll have to see what kind of voting he gets," said Jim McCormick, professor and chair of political science at ISU, where he has led a team of university researchers on the Iowa State University Poll. "I do think it frankly says something positive, that we're not just voting for someone on the basis of their race, but on the attractiveness of the candidate himself -- his agenda and ability to bring about change."
Clinton's candidacy is attempting to tear down a similar barrier on the gender front. While she's not the first woman to run for president, she's the first to actually make it to the Iowa caucuses. And this time around, the country appears poised to seriously consider a woman president.
"It you look at public opinion polls, they've really improved upon the fact that most people, especially Democrats, say they would be willing to vote for a woman president," said Bystrom, who is a co-author, co-editor and contributor to 11 books on politics, including "Gender and Elections" (2006), and "Anticipating Madam President" (2003). She is presently working on book chapters related to Clinton's campaign.
"In recent polls, the percentage of people who said they would be willing to elect a woman president is somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the people," she said. "So I think people are willing to elect a woman. It's just whether they'll elect Hillary Clinton."
And then there's the case of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. While he is like all the previous presidents, a Caucasian man, he is unlike any other because of his Mormon faith. Adding to the intrigue is that his closest rival in Iowa, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is a former Baptist minister who is a appealing to Christian conservatives. The results in both Iowa and upcoming primary states may put Romney's faith to the test.
"It seems to me, I'm hearing some backlash against Romney," said McCormick. "The results of his candidacy will be a very important hurdle in further eroding the unspoken religious test."
Results in this presidential election will reflect whether the country is ready for change, beyond policy, in the White House in 2008.