When a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted with the Williams Institute was released earlier this month, a question about the public's support for a gay presidential candidate got most of the media attention. While not entirely surprising given the candidacy of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, (who, if not the first out gay presidential candidate, is the most successful to date), the poll marked another historic milestone in presidential politics and polling. The Reuters/Ispos poll was the first to ask Americans about their support for a transgender presidential candidate.
The poll revealed a surprising amount of support. Over half of all respondents (57 percent) said that the fact that a presidential candidate was transgender would either not matter to them (46 percent) or would make them more likely to support a candidate (11 percent). Only 1 in 4 (26 percent) said they would be "much less likely" to vote for a transgender candidate.
And for the record books -- for the first time, Americans were also asked about their support for a gender non-binary presidential candidate. The results were similar: 58 percent said that they would either be more likely to support such a candidate (10 percent) or that identity would not matter to their vote (48 percent).
Historically, this is a much better showing than other minority presidential candidates received when Americans were first asked about supporting them. In response to a 1937 Gallup poll, only 33 percent of respondents said they would vote for a female candidate and only 46 percent for a Jewish candidate. Public willingness to vote for a Black president was at 37 percent in 1958, when Gallup first included the question on a national survey. In 1978, only 26 percent of respondents said they would vote for a "homosexual" candidate for president when that question was first asked.
It's not all positive news for potential transgender candidates, however. A transgender presidential candidate fared less well than most other groups that were asked about on the Reuters/Ipsos poll. Over 80 percent of respondents said that whether a presidential candidate was Black or Latino would either not matter to them or make them more likely to vote for a candidate, and approximately two-thirds had similar support for a gay or lesbian candidate.
Transgender and gender non-binary candidates, however, did poll better than one group of candidates -- those over the age of 70. Only 52 percent of respondents said that a candidate being over the age of 70 would not matter (42 percent) or make them more likely to vote for a candidate (10 percent). On Inauguration Day 2020, President Trump and candidates Sanders, Biden, Weld, and Warren will be 70 years or older.
The level of support for a transgender president varied greatly by political party, familiarity with the LGBT community, and other demographic characteristics which shape public opinion about transgender people and issues. For example, 70 percent of registered Democrats said they would be more likely to vote for a transgender candidate or that a candidate's gender identity wouldn't matter -- compared to 60 percent of registered Independents and only 32 percent of registered Republicans. Put differently, three times as many registered Republicans (45 percent) said they would be "much less likely" to vote for a transgender presidential candidate than registered Democrats (15 percent).
Almost 9 in 10 of LGBT Americans expressed support for a transgender presidential candidate (89 percent) as did 65 percent of those who said they had LGBT friends and family members. Of those who said they didn't know anyone who was LGBT, only 41 percent expressed support. Consistent with other research, People of Color, women, and millennials were also more likely to express support for a transgender presidential candidate.
Will we have a transgender president soon? Most likely not. Today, the Victory Institute reports there are 13 transgender elected officials in the United States. None are in Congress or hold statewide office, at least not yet.
But a question can't be answered until it is asked. The polling question allows us to envision a future where the gender identity of a presidential candidate, or of any person, either won't matter or will be viewed as fostering character traits -- such as resilience and empathy -- that are valued in a leader, a co-worker, or friend.
Questions on national polls can reflect the very beginnings of what is politically possible and help shape the future. For example, national polls did not routinely include questions about marriage equality until 2004 -- the year same-sex couples were able to marry in the first state in the U.S. By 2012, the polls began to show that a majority of Americans supported marriage equality. Just three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the remaining discriminatory marriage laws. The polling questions both reflected and helped shape the movement towards marriage equality.
The question also has another value. It helps change the terms of our current debate. Questions about support for minority presidential candidates have helped move discussions away from just measuring levels of bias and towards measuring one of the highest levels of civic inclusion.
Today we have a president and a Republican Party who keep re-calling questions about transgender people and issues that should have been relegated to the history books: Can transgender people serve in the military? Use a bathroom consistent with their gender identity? Do they even exist? While we, unfortunately, cannot ignore these questions from those in power, it is also important we reclaim the discussion by asking questions of our own. The questions we ask today will help shape the future of tomorrow.
Brad Sears is an Associate Dean of Public Interest Law at UCLA School of Law and the David S. Sander Distinguished Scholar of Law and Policy at the Williams Institute.