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Research and Resources on Women and US Politics (February 2017): Women as Candidates

By Melinda A. Mueller

Women as Candidates

Once women decide to run for office, research turns toward whether or not sex plays a role in determining both campaign strategies and election outcomes. While stereotypes and discrimination have played a role in past campaigns, research suggests that today these biases are not major factors in determining election outcomes. While conventional wisdom may assert that gender bias exists, research suggested a more complex reality. Barbara Burrell’s Gender in Campaigns for the US House of Representatives provides a longitudinal analysis of US House races from 1994 through 2012, focusing on sex differences and discrimination in fundraising, party support, organizational support, and voter support. Her analysis found very little evidence of discrimination in how men and women campaign for the US House, but still questions why fewer women serve. Her research findings point to the importance of further studying recruitment efforts, as well as exploring whether hyperpolarization in Congress dissuades women from considering political careers. Similarly, in He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes Do Not Harm Women Candidates, Deborah Brooks conducted an experimental analysis of voters regarding their attitudes about candidates, finding no evidence that voters hold unfavorable stereotypes or double standards about women candidates. Kathleen Dolan’s analysis of voter attitudes about women candidates in When Does Gender Matter? concludes that gender stereotypes did not play a role in shaping election outcomes for female candidates.

One particular challenge for women candidates is the level and nature of media coverage. Research on media bias against women candidates found that the media is more likely to emphasize issues such as physical appearance, dress, and the ability of women to handle foreign policy (Melich 2005). In a study of media coverage of women Senate and gubernatorial candidates, “Traits versus Issues,” Johanna Dunaway et al. concluded that the media offer less issue coverage about women candidates, reporting more on “trait” coverage related to women candidate’s personalities (Dunaway et al. 2013). However, research indicates that media bias does not influence voters as much as incumbency, partisanship, and ideology (Hayes, Lawless, and Baitinger 2014; Hayes and Lawless 2015). Indeed, current research points to incumbency, party and ideology as the most important factors determining election outcomes. Female voters do not demonstrate a gender affinity to vote for female candidates—in part because women candidates do not simply run on the issue of gender, due to the overriding concerns of party and ideology (K. Dolan 2008).

However, the fact that so many women choose not to run suggests that sex may still affect election outcomes. A study of congressional races from 1984 to 2010 concluded that while women were as likely as men to win, the women candidates—both winning and losing—were overqualified compared to their male counterparts (Pearson and McGhee 2013), indicating that barriers still exist for women. Similarly, research by Sarah Fulton concluded that a sex-based quality gap may be more important than gender in determining electoral success (Fulton 2012)—women who perceive that sex bias exists will choose not to run if they are unqualified, resulting in only highly qualified women running for office. Women may appear to win as much as men, but there is a wider array of candidate quality among male than among female candidates.

While sex does not appear to play a major role in determining election outcomes, campaigns still reflect gendered strategies and decision-making. Kelly Dittmar illustrates this in Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns, where she surveyed campaign strategists and consultants, and learned that gender does play a role in shaping candidate messages and imagery. Her research confirms older studies that concluded women candidates may play to gender stereotypes in their campaigns by emphasizing women’s issues (K. Fridkin 1996). Research also suggests that women candidates are more effective than men at priming female voters to consider women’s issues when voting (Holman, Schneider, and Pondel 2015). At the same time, recent experimental research found that male candidates are better than women at convincing voters that they possess traits inconsistent with their sex. Thus, a male candidate may be able to suggest to voters that he is a nurturing caregiver, taking on a “female” trait, while a female candidate would have a harder time suggesting that she is a foreign policy hawk, taking on a “male” trait (Schneider 2014).

While conventional wisdom assumes that women are penalized for being parents, experimental research suggests that childless women candidates can be penalized by voters, particularly on children’s issues, which often are assumed to be advantageous to women candidates (Stalsburg 2010). Jill Greenlee’s research illustrated that candidates regularly invoke images of motherhood, depending on the issues at hand, as a campaign strategy. She found this technique is used by both sexes today (Greenlee 2015).

Conventional wisdom might also assume that women candidates would be punished for “going negative,” and that women candidates would be protected against negative attacks. While it appears that men and women candidates “go negative” in campaigns today, voter reactions can vary. One study found that male voters are more likely than female voters to be mobilized by negative campaigns (Jordan Brooks 2010). However, experimental research focusing on voter reaction to negative campaigning indicates that political party matters more than candidate sex (Craig and Rippere 2016). A recent study used an experimental survey to examine how men and women reacted to fact-checking of negative campaigning in a 2012 Senate race. The authors found that sex differences do exist—women are less tolerant of negative campaigning than men, and are more responsive to fact-checking of those ads (K. L. Fridkin et al. 2016).

Research on negativity also indicates that while in the past women enjoyed a “compassion advantage” when running for office, current women candidates are more likely to face significant negative attacks from their challengers. Tanya Melich’s research showed that social media offers expanded opportunities for attacks on women candidates, and at the same time, the decline of the local press has led to lower levels of fact-checking campaign claims. Her research indicates that women running in open seats are especially vulnerable to highly negative attacks on their lack of experience, lack of terrorism expertise, and physical appearance (Melich 2005).

As intersectional studies develop, researchers are questioning the hypothesis that minority women were at a double disadvantage in campaigns, burdened by both their sex and race or ethnicity. In an analysis of local news coverage of male and female House candidates in 2012, Ward concluded that minority women receive overall less coverage, and that media coverage tends to have a more negative tone (Ward 2016). However, Christina Bejarano’s The Latina Advantage: Gender, Race, and Political Success found that Latina candidates may be more successful than their male counterparts, due to greater support among voters. 

Works Cited