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

Introduction

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.

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199968275.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

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

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

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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

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

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  • 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gender Stereotypes and Voter Support for Women Candidates

Research on how voters employ gender stereotypes to assess women candidates primarily relies on experimental data or survey data, and as such often comes to different conclusions about how or even whether gender stereotypes affect women’s candidacies. Huddy and Terkildsen 1993b finds voters have an underlying expectation about the types of issues women candidates are better or less well suited to address. Ditonto, et al. 2014 shows that voters search for different types of information about men and women candidates. Barnes and Beaulieu 2014 considers how voters draw on gender stereotypes to disassociate women candidates with electoral fraud and corruption. Sanbonmatsu 2002 employs survey data to demonstrate how voters often have a baseline preference for men or women candidates. Fox and Oxley 2003 shows the impact of gender stereotypes on voters’ assessments of women candidates in certain types of elections, whereas Holman, et al. 2016 considers how and when voters use gender stereotypes to identify preferences in political leadership from men and women candidates during threats of terrorism. Dolan 2010 uses survey research to conclude that gender stereotypes do not negatively impact women candidates, a finding echoed by Brooks using experimental data that explicitly considers situations in which women and men candidates show emotions like sorrow or anger (Brooks 2013). Dolan and Lynch 2016 considers whether the type of elected office women seek leads voters to differentially employ gender stereotypes. Bauer 2018 employs experiments to tease out the role of partisanship in activating gender stereotypes of women candidates. Researchers do not agree on the circumstances under which voters employ or make any use of gender stereotypes in assessing women candidates.

Political Party and Voter Support for Women Candidates

This line of research looks at party affiliation—of voters and women candidates—to evaluate support for women seeking elected office. A central and unresolved question is whether Democratic and Republican women candidates are advantaged or disadvantaged by a party label. King and Matland 2003 uses experimental data to show that Republican women candidates appeal more favorably to Democratic and Independent voters but less favorably to Republican voters in primary elections that they must first win to compete in a general election. Lawless and Pearson 2008 examines party primaries to demonstrate that women candidates in both parties face greater electoral competition in primary elections. Winter 2010 shows how voters hold gendered beliefs about the Democratic and Republican parties that, in turn, affect women candidates in both parties. Hayes 2011 finds that voter stereotypes about political party, not gender, are more salient in voters’ assessments of women candidates. Dittmar 2015 demonstrates how partisan stereotypes about gender influence messaging and electoral strategies employed by candidates and the campaign professionals they employ. Thomsen 2015; Shames 2015; and Karpowitz, et al. 2017 consider the challenges facing Republican women candidates in gaining voter support in both primary and general elections. Schneider and Bos 2016 considers when voters privilege gender or party stereotypes in assessing women candidates. From a comparative perspective, Kittilson 2006 examines the experience of women candidates running for parliament under different party labels in western European democracies.

  • Dittmar, Kelly. Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.

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    Explores how gender and partisan stereotypes about gender influence the campaign and messaging strategies utilized by political consultants, candidates, and campaign consultants in elections.

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  • Hayes, Danny. “When Gender and Party Collide: Stereotyping in Candidate Trait Attribution.” Politics & Gender 7 (2011): 133–165.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1743923X11000055Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examination of US Senate elections to demonstrate that party stereotypes exert a stronger influence over voters than gender stereotypes.

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  • Karpowitz, Christopher F., Quin Monson, and Jessica Robinson Preece. “How to Elect More Women: Gender and Candidate Success in a Field Experiment.” American Journal of Political Science 61 (2017): 927–943.

    DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12300Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Experimental data, including a sample of Republican voters, indicates that positive messages from the party’s leaders increases voter support for Republican women candidates.

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  • King, David, and Richard Matland. “Sex and the Grand Old Party: An Experimental Investigation of the Effect of Candidate Sex on Support for a Republican Candidate.” American Politics Research 31 (2003): 595–612.

    DOI: 10.1177/1532673X03255286Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Draws on experimental data to demonstrate that Democratic and Independent voters assess Republican female candidates more favorably than Republican male candidates but that Republican male voters do not favorably assess female Republican candidates in party primaries.

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  • Kittilson, Miki Caul. Challenging Parties, Changing Parliaments: Women and Elected Office in Contemporary Western Europe. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006.

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    Cross-national case studies of women parliamentary candidates across Western European political systems demonstrate that parties vary widely in their willingness to include and support women candidates.

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  • Lawless, Jennifer, and Kathryn Pearson. “The Primary Reason for Women’s Underrepresentation? Reevaluating the Conventional Wisdom.” Journal of Politics 70 (2008): 67–82.

    DOI: 10.1017/s002238160708005xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analysis of nearly fifty years of congressional primaries demonstrates that even with generally equal “win rates,” women congressional candidates are more likely to face more primary competition than the men in their party, which suggests that women candidates face more competitive electoral environments.

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  • Schneider, Monica C., and Angela L. Bos. The Interplay of Party and Gender Stereotypes in Evaluating Political Candidates.” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 37 (2016): 274–294.

    DOI: 10.1080/1554477X.2016.1188598Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Voters draw on gender and party preferences, sometimes together and other times separately, in evaluating female candidates for elected office.

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  • Shames, Shauna. Clearing the Primary Hurdles for Republican Women. Cambridge, MA: Hunt Alternatives, 2015.

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    Multi-method analysis of opportunities and challenges facing female Republican congressional candidates.

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  • Thomsen, Danielle M. “Why So Few (Republican) Women? Explaining the Partisan Imbalance of Women in the U.S. Congress.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 40 (2015): 295–323.

    DOI: 10.1111/lsq.12075Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Attributes the dearth of Republican women candidates to a demand problem from voters that discourages moderate Republican women from running for Congress.

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  • Winter, Nicholas J. G. “Masculine Republicans and Feminine Democrats: Gender and Americans’ Explicit and Implicit Images of the Political Parties.” Political Behavior 32 (2010): 587–618.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11109-010-9131-zSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses American National Election Studies and experiments to demonstrate how voters have gendered the Democratic and Republican parties and the implication of those assumptions for men and women candidates who run under party labels.

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Electoral Context, Type of Office, and Voter Support for Women Candidates

Voter support for women candidates may depend on the electoral context in which women candidates run or the type of office they seek. Research from Burrell 1994, Paolino 1995, and Dolan 1998 each examined gains made by women candidates in the 1992 congressional elections of 1992, dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” to demonstrate how a favorable electoral context can boost the prospects for women’s political candidacy. An analysis of the type of elected office women candidates seek is a popular line of inquiry. Huddy and Terkildsen 1993a found that voters have a baseline preference for male candidates for national office. Sanbonmatsu 2006 demonstrates the importance of state party leaders in helping or hindering women’s political candidacy. Badas and Stauffer 2019 found that share gender between voters and candidates shape voter preferences for women candidates in non-partisan judicial elections. Crowder-Meyer, et al. 2015 shows that voters may prefer women candidates for local elected office, whereas Cox Han and Heldman 2007, Paul and Smith 2008, and Kahn and Kenney 2009, each demonstrate that voters may be less supportive of women candidates who run for president, and US Senate, respectively.

Race, Ethnicity, and Voter Support for Women Candidates

If women candidates win election as frequently as men, some researchers have focused on how or whether certain characteristics, including race and ethnicity, affect women candidates. Earlier assessments of voter support for minority candidates were not favorable. In her retelling of her 1972 election for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, Representative Shirley Chisholm (Chisholm 1973) details how the Democratic Party members and also (white) feminists did not support her candidacy even as she was a Democrat and a woman. McDermott 1998 finds that voters employ gender and racial stereotypes to assess women candidates, a finding echoed by other scholars, including the authors of Gershon and Monforti 2019. Hardy-Fanta, et al. 2006 credits the increase in minority women’s representation to voter support for African American women candidates. Philpot and Walton 2007 attributes the success of African American women candidates to positive voter assessments of their experience. In contrast, Krupnikov, et al. 2016 suggests that social desirability may overstate voter support for minority female candidates. Bejarano 2014 finds that Latina state legislative candidates in states with large Latino populations are particularly advantaged. And, when assessing the electoral fortunes of minority women candidates, Brown and Gershon 2016 calls for an intersectional approach to appreciate their challenges and opportunities.

Public Opinion Polls and Voter Support for Women Presidential Candidates

The widespread use of public opinion polls to gather information about voter preferences yields important findings about the willingness of voters to support women candidates, which might be best described as positive in general but less positive based on specific scenarios or women candidates. Gallup Poll (McCarthy 2019) has the longest time series about the public’s willingness to vote for a “qualified” woman presidential candidate, finding it necessary to make clear to respondents that men, not women, were naturally qualified to run for president. In addition, many of the aforementioned ideas about voters relying on gender and/or party stereotypes, such as Cohen and Livingston 2016 and Igielnik and Horowitz 2018, and the double bind of likability and competence—see Burrell 2008, Grove and Liszt 2013, and the survey Exploring Voters’ Perceptions of Democratic Presidential Candidates Through a Gender Lens—are affirmed in public opinion polls asking about women candidates. Taken as a whole, public opinion polls affirm generic voter support for women candidates in the abstract but lower levels of voter support when a specific woman candidate is specified.

Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Bids and Voter Support for Women Candidates

Given Hillary Clinton’s status as the first woman to win a major party presidential nomination and also the woman candidate to receive the most votes for president, both in 2016, there is a robust thread of research that evaluates voter support for Clinton. Lawrence and Rose 2010; McThomas and Tesler 2016; and Sharrow, et al. 2016 each evaluate Clinton’s first bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, including media coverage support from party activists and also rank and file voters. Much of the analysis, however, was written following the 2016 presidential election contest after Clinton won her party’s nomination but lost the presidency—see Dittmar 2017; Cassese and Holman 2018; and Heldman, et al. 2018—with the most notable deconstruction of the 2016 campaign coming from the candidate herself, Clinton 2017. While researchers focus on different aspects of Clinton’s two unsuccessful attempts to run for president, a shared finding is the central role that gender dynamics play in the campaigns of women seeking elected office, particularly those running for the highest office in the nation.

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