In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Voter Support for Women Candidates

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Gender Stereotypes and Voter Support for Women Candidates
  • Political Party and Voter Support for Women Candidates
  • Electoral Context, Type of Office, and Voter Support for Women Candidates
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Voter Support for Women Candidates
  • Public Opinion Polls and Voter Support for Women Presidential Candidates
  • Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Bids and Voter Support for Women Candidates

Political Science Voter Support for Women Candidates
Rosalyn Cooperman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0307


Voter support for women candidates in American politics may best be summed up by the often-repeated phrase, “when women run, women win.” This statement indicates that when compared to male candidates running in a similar capacity, such as candidates for open seats in which no incumbent is present, female candidates are equally likely to win elected office. Voters, therefore, seem equally likely at face value to support female candidates. However, the literature on voter support for women candidates suggests that this voter support may be more conditional in nature. A central research thread on voters and women candidates is how voters perceive women candidates and, in turn, their electability. Research on gender stereotypes and candidates examines voter perceptions of the traits they typically associate with men and women, candidates, and officeholders and the circumstances under which these traits make gender and political candidacy more or less attractive. The literature on political party and voter support for women candidates explores how gender and party affect levels of voter support and is offered as one explanation for the party imbalance in women’s representation with female Democrats significantly outnumbering female Republicans as candidates and officeholders. Researchers have also examined how voters evaluate other components of women’s candidacies, including their party affiliation, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. In addition to personal characteristics, scholars have explored how the type or level of office impacts voter support of women candidates with certain types of elected positions often considered more or less well suited for women candidates. More recently, a thread of research on voter support for women candidates has focused on women’s absence from the nation’s highest elected position—the US presidency. Scholars, and the candidate herself, have assessed voter support for or opposition to Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential bids in 2008 and 2016. This line of research includes public opinion polling that measures both the abstract idea of electing a woman president as well as electing a specific woman president, namely Clinton.

General Overview

Foundational works in the area of voter support for women candidates share the goal of evaluating women’s political candidacy more broadly, paying attention to voters, political parties, media coverage in campaigns. Earlier works, including Sapiro 1981 and Seltzer, et al. 1997, established that voters did not discriminate against female candidates and when compared to men running in similar races they won election just as frequently. Tolleson Rinehart 1992 finds that female candidates are particularly attractive to women who identify as gender conscious and who view the election of women as an important goal. Even so, Kahn 1996 demonstrates that female candidates often anticipate voters assessing them differently from male candidates and often work strategically to successfully navigate any negative assessments regarding their suitability to hold elected office. Jamieson 1997 posits that women in leadership positions are often held to unattainable competing standards—a “double bind”—that expect women to be kind but not a pushover, attractive but not too pretty, bold but not emasculating, standards that consistently have women falling far short of the perfect, composite image of an ideal leader. Dolan 2004 and Dolan 2014 use survey data to consistently demonstrate that other factors, including the party affiliation of voters and candidates, not gender stereotypes, exert a significant influence over evaluations of women candidates. The edited volumes Thomas and Wilcox 2014 and Carroll and Fox 2018 explore voter support for women candidates and related salient issues for contemporary state and federal elections.

  • Carroll, Susan J., and Richard L. Fox, eds. Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics. 4th ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    Edited volume that explores women’s political candidacy in federal and state elections, and also the experiences of Latinas and African American candidates for elective office.

  • Dolan, Kathleen. Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.

    Survey research from the General Social Survey and the American National Election Study demonstrates how voters assess women candidates and the factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of voting for them.

  • Dolan, Kathleen. When Does Gender Matter? Women Candidates & Gender Stereotypes in American Elections. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199968275.001.0001

    Foundational work that uses survey data to demonstrate that political party affiliation, not gender stereotypes, influence voters’ support for women candidates.

  • Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Essential and comprehensive analysis of the many ways in which individuals hold competing and irreconcilable expectations of the qualities women leaders, including political candidates, are expected to possess.

  • Kahn, Kim Fridkin. The Political Consequences of Being a Woman: How Stereotypes Influence the Conduct and Consequences of Political Campaigns. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    Foundational work that examines women’s political candidacy for governor and US Senate and how women candidates anticipate and navigate the media’s and voter’s use of gender stereotypes in assessing women candidates’ suitability for statewide elected office.

  • Sapiro, Virginia. “If U.S. Senator Baker Were a Woman: An Experimental Study of Candidate Image.” Political Psychology 2 (1981): 61–83.

    DOI: 10.2307/3791285

    Experimental data indicates that changing a candidate’s gender does not in and of itself negatively impact voters’ willingness to support a woman candidate.

  • Seltzer, Richard A., Jody Newman, and Melissa Vorhees Leighton. Sex as a Political Variable: Women as Candidates and Voters in U.S. Elections. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1997.

    A foundational book that uses exit poll data to demonstrate that a candidate’s incumbency status, not sex, determines voters’ support for women candidates.

  • Thomas, Sue, and Clyde Wilcox, eds. Women and Elective Office: Past, Present, and Future. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Edited volume that provides a comprehensive assessment of women’s political candidacy as Democrats and Republicans and as candidates for different elected offices.

  • Tolleson Rinehart, Sue. Gender Consciousness and Politics. New York: Routledge, 1992.

    American National Election Survey data examined to evaluate how gender consciousness and voter self-identification with feminism impacts women’s political candidacy.

  • Wolbrecht, Christina, Karen Beckwith, and Lisa Baldez, eds. Political Women and American Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Comprehensive edited volume that considers the salience of gender and political candidacy, including voter support.

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