(First published in CQ Magazine on July 25, 2016.)
There are those who believe that women will propel Hillary Clinton to the presidency in November, seizing the opportunity to put the first of their kind in the White House. After all, that’s what black voters helped to do for Barack Obama in 2008.
Clinton herself hopes this is true. In declaring victory over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, Clinton played up the historic nature of her candidacy, crediting her win to “generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”
Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has criticized Clinton for trying to exploit her gender and has attempted to rally those who believe it’s no cause to vote for her. After a night of primary victories in April, he told supporters: “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she has going is the woman’s card.”
The storyline around the 2016 election may focus on a battle of the sexes. Polls show that women favor Clinton, while Trump is doing better than her with men.
But the latest political science research indicates that neither sexism nor feminism is likely to decide this race. It turns out that other factors — primarily the political party of the candidate —are much more important than gender stereotypes, which seem to barely matter at all.
“There is very little evidence that women are more likely to vote for women candidates simply because they are women,” says Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee whose 2014 book “When Does Gender Matter? Women Candidates and Gender Stereotypes in American Elections” examined votes for women who ran for Congress and governorships in 2010. Likewise, Dolan says, “There is very little evidence that men don’t vote for women candidates because they are women.”
Clinton, in other words, can’t count on a boost from women, but nor should she fear a backlash from men. That doesn’t mean, however, that she does not enter the race with a built-in advantage. She does: the gender gap.
How can sexism and feminism be non-issues in the campaign while the women’s vote gives Clinton an advantage?
Simply put, women tend to vote for the Democratic candidate for president, while men prefer the Republican. Democrats have the edge because more women vote — many millions more.
This runs counter to many feminists’ gut instinct that sexism is working against them.
And there’s some evidence that Clinton has suffered for her gender, given her devastating loss in the Democratic primaries to Obama eight years ago and her struggle to put away Sanders this year, despite her higher profile and broader experience in government.
“We have a deep-seated misogynistic, sexist society,” says Rosemary Camposano, who co-founded the WomenCount political action committee in May 2008 to protest some Democrats’ calls for Clinton to drop out of the Democratic nominating contest that year. “There is deeply embedded resistance to a woman, and particularly a strong woman.”
But according to numerous studies going back to the 1970s that have examined women’s prospects running for Congress or governor, that’s simply not so.
Robert Darcy and Sarah Slavin Schramm of George Washington University wrote in a 1977 article that a congressional candidate’s gender had “little or no effect on election outcomes,” for example. In 1985, John Zipp and Eric Plutzer of Washington University in St. Louis found the same in their study of 1982 Senate and gubernatorial races. In 1994, Barbara Burrell of Northern Illinois University wrote in her book, “A Woman’s Place Is in the House: Campaigning for Congress in the Feminist Era,” that women are as successful at winning elections as men.
But at one point, there was clear bias. When the Gallup Organization asked in 1936 if its respondents would “vote for a woman for president if she was qualified in every other respect,” 2 in 3 said no.
Shortly after Clinton’s loss to Obama, the Pew Research Center asked a similar question and 92 percent of respondents said they would vote for a woman. At the same time, though, more than half of those polled by Pew said they didn’t believe their fellow Americans were sincere. Fifty-six percent said they thought “America was not ready for a woman leader.”
That, despite the fact that political scientists have found consistently since the 1970s that women who run for office win at rates equal to those of men. The reason women remain so underrepresented in political office is not because they face discrimination at the ballot box, but because so few of them run, which may well be the result of underlying sexism.
In her study, Dolan found that women running for the House in 2010 won votes at rates as good as or better than the men. Democratic women representatives as well as Democratic women seeking House seats did slightly better than Democratic men. Republican women representatives accrued votes at nearly the rate the men did and did slightly better than their male counterparts in challenging incumbents.
But Dolan and many others have found that men are much more likely than women to view themselves as strong candidates for elective office. So women who run tend to wait until they have more political experience, as was the case for 2010 House candidates. The women that year were significantly more likely than the men to have served previously in a state-level office.
In the run-up to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Camposano and her colleagues were angry enough with the Obama campaign for perceived sexist slights that they said they were considering writing in Clinton’s name or voting for the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. They attacked then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and even the top Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi of California, for betraying Clinton. And they even criticized as sexist Democrats who were mocking McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Heidi Li Feldman, a Georgetown University law professor who organized an advertising campaign before the 2008 Democratic convention to demand that Clinton’s name be placed in nomination — Clinton ultimately called for Obama’s nomination by acclamation, short-circuiting the convention vote — said at the time that Obama’s ascension was “the product of a corrupt process.”
So it became awkward this year for Clinton’s most fervent, feminist supporters when Sanders started winning more young women’s votes than Clinton, and later, when he refused to drop out of the race after it was clear he had lost.
Feldman says she sees Sanders’ appeal to young women as a symptom of America’s sexist culture.
“What I think the media hasn’t covered and hasn’t reported is a thoroughgoing feminist perspective on the Sanders candidacy and the reaction of young men and women to someone they can think of as cool granddad versus mom,” she says. “And it turns out that this is a comment about the culture, not something conscious in the minds of anyone who is supporting Bernie Sanders.”
Still, she doesn’t condemn Sanders or the young women who supported him. Others have. Before the New Hampshire primary, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” to pressure womankind to back Clinton. Sanders won anyway, with 82 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women and 55 percent of all Granite State women voters.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem told HBO’s Bill Maher that young women were backing Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie.” She later apologized.
The conventional wisdom among the feminist older generation remains that young women voted for Sanders because they haven’t experienced the kind of sexism older women have, and that they will fall in line in the general election. Another theory is that young women see that sexism no longer holds women back in politics and believe that a woman will eventually be elected president, whether it is Clinton or someone else. They are willing to wait for a better candidate to make history.
Overall, in the primaries, Clinton won the women’s vote handily. Clinton also enjoyed an advantage among women in her 2008 primary campaign.
Clinton on average received 8.6 percent more votes from women than she got from men in the 2008 primaries and 10.6 percent more in 2016, according to research by Barbara Norrander, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.
That, at least, is an indication that Democratic women may favor a candidate of their own gender in a primary contest.
But Dolan, in her analysis of 2010 voting returns for House, Senate and gubernatorial general election races, found that partisanship trumps both gender loyalty and gender stereotypes.
Camposano, an example of that, ultimately did vote for Obama. And she expects that women will coalesce around Clinton and propel her to victory this year.
The circumstances of the race seem to set Clinton up perfectly and she is encouraging women’s solidarity. After Trump said she was little more than an affirmative action success story, Clinton responded by offering a $5 “Woman Card” for sale on her campaign website that looked like a New York City subway fare card, except it’s pink and touts her candidacy.
But Dolan’s research shows that it’s unlikely that many conservative women will vote for Clinton out of any sense of gender loyalty.
Dolan’s study throws much of the political science research on sexism on its head because, in the past, political scientists have primarily asked people how they felt about hypothetical women and men candidates and found all sorts of gender stereotyping, such as male candidates are more decisive and tough, or they handle economic and defense issues better than a woman would. By contrast, female candidates are presented as more honest and compassionate and handle issues like child care and education better than men.
But Dolan found that when voters are given more information about specific candidates, their party loyalties overwhelm their preconceived notions.
In 2010, Democratic women who’d like to see more women in office didn’t abandon Nevada Sen. Harry Reid for his opponent, Republican Sharron Angle, any more than Republican men skeptical of women’s ability to govern abandoned New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte for her opponent, Democrat Paul Hodes.
And while it’s true that never in American history has a woman run for president as the candidate of a major party, it’s also true that the electorate knows a lot about Clinton that either challenges or confirms any preconceptions they might hold about women office-seekers.
Clinton might look at how strongly blacks turned out for Obama in 2008 and 2012, increasing their typical turnout rate from 6 in 10 eligible voters to 2 in 3, and get excited about a history-making women’s vote. The 10 percent jump among eligible black voters going to the polls meant that a greater percentage of blacks cast ballots than whites, a first in American history.
She shouldn’t count on it.
“Racial consciousness really is a thing,” says Dolan. “Black voters really were motivated to vote for a fellow minority. We find much less evidence that gender consciousness is a thing.”
But Clinton doesn’t need to win over Republican women or hope for a game-changing increase in turnout. Any increase in women’s turnout — 65.6 percent of women voters cast ballots in 2008 and 63.7 percent did in 2012 — plays to her benefit because a majority of them are almost certain to favor her. By contrast, only 61.5 percent of men turned out in 2008 and 59.8 percent in 2012.
The gender gap, as measured by the Gallup Organization, hit an all-time high of 20 percentage points in 2012. Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by 12 points among women voters, but lost men to Romney by 8 points.
And one thing has remained consistent since 1988: The Democrat wins women. The closest Republicans have come since George H.W. Bush took the women’s vote by 4 percentage points that year was 2004, when his son lost it by the same margin.
In each of the last six presidential elections, excepting 2004, Democrats’ advantage among women has exceeded Republicans’ among men. And in three of those years — 1992, 1996 and 2008 — Democrats won both the women’s vote and the men’s vote.
Before the feminist movement took hold, a gender gap existed in U.S. politics, but women voted for the party men did. No one can say why that changed, but political scientists have theories.
Norrander says the gap is the result more of men moving strongly into the Republican Party than of women embracing the Democrats.
“Men started to move into the Republican Party after 1964,” when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater began to mold a new conservatism based on states’ rights themes aimed at appealing to white voters in the South and West, Norrander says. “They did so at a greater and faster rate than women.”
The issue is not, Norrander argues, a question of where the parties stand on women’s issues, like abortion or child care — her research shows those are not a deciding factor — but on the parties’ broader governing philosophies. Women have preferred Democrats because they are the party of compassion and a generous safety net that women are more likely to use. Men prefer the self-reliant, libertarian tones of the GOP.
That’s created an advantage for Democrats because many more women vote. The number of women casting presidential ballots has exceeded that of men since 1964 and the difference has widened almost every presidential year. In 1964, the difference was 1.7 million votes, according to an analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. It’s grown and was never greater than in 2012 when 9.8 million more women than men cast ballots.
“If women turn out, Democrats could have an advantage,” says Dolan.
Clinton can’t expect women to vote for her simply because she’s a woman, but she can reasonably assume that a higher women’s turnout will help her win.
And she has reason to be encouraged. According to a study Norrander presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Conference this April, Democratic women turn out at greater rates than Democratic men in primary contests.
With Clinton in the race, in both 2008 and 2016, women voters turned out at rates that exceeded men by more than 15 percentage points.
In 2000 and 2004, when all the Democratic candidates were men, the gap wasn’t as large: 13.5 points in 2000 and 9.5 points in 2004.