Voters Are Less Sexist Than You Think

Did gender really play a role in Christine Quinn’s New York City mayoral primary loss?

Christine Quinn (C), New York City Council Speaker and former mayoral hopeful, smiles with Democratic Party nominee Bill de Blasio (L), at a news conference where Quinn endorsed de Blasio outside City Hall on September 17, 2013 in New York City. De Blasio will face Republican Joseph Lhota in the general mayoral election November 5, 2013, with the winner succeeding current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 
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Nora Caplan-Bricker
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Nora Caplan-Bricker
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

Do voters hold wo­men can­did­ates to a dif­fer­ent stand­ard? Wheth­er it’s a heck­ler telling Hil­lary Clin­ton to “iron my shirt” dur­ing the 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, or the fact that Con­gress re­mains just 18.5 per­cent fe­male, it’s not hard to find signs of bi­as in Amer­ic­an polit­ics. But in her new book, When Does Gender Mat­ter? Wo­men Can­did­ates & Gender Ste­reo­types in Amer­ic­an Elec­tions (Ox­ford Uni­versity Press, 2014), polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Kath­leen Dolan chal­lenges the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom. Al­though wo­men run for of­fice in far lower num­bers than men, she points out, they win at the same rate. Armed with the res­ults of two sur­veys she con­duc­ted dur­ing the 2010 midterms, Dolan ar­gues that gender fig­ures far less in voters’ de­cision-mak­ing than her fel­low schol­ars, and the polit­ic­al me­dia, as­sume.

Christine Quinn and Bill de Bla­sio. (Mario Tama/Getty Im­ages)Dolan points out a hole in the re­search that pre­ceded hers. While a wealth of stud­ies have found that voters see wo­men ac­cord­ing to ste­reo­types, most re­lied on hy­po­thet­ic­al match­ups, thought ex­per­i­ments about can­did­ates who are identic­al in every way but gender. In real races, of course, gender is one of many factors. “We know that voters hold polit­ic­al gender ste­reo­types, and we know that wo­men win elec­tions,” Dolan writes. “What we know much less about is what hap­pens between these two real­it­ies.”

The first of Dolan’s sur­veys gauged voters’ level of ste­reo­typ­ic­al think­ing. Thirty-one per­cent of re­spond­ents agreed with the state­ment that men are emo­tion­ally bet­ter-suited to polit­ics than wo­men, cor­rob­or­at­ing earli­er stud­ies. Two months later, Dolan went a step fur­ther, ask­ing the same voters to eval­u­ate wo­men can­did­ates run­ning for the House, the Sen­ate, and the gov­ernor­ship in their states — al­low­ing her to track wheth­er the people who dis­played hide­bound think­ing about wo­men in the first round ac­tu­ally ap­plied it when cast­ing their votes.

Her an­swer: not of­ten, and not in ways that mattered much. Faced with flesh-and-blood can­did­ates, voters’ bi­ases largely faded in­to the back­ground. In­stead, voters were swayed by things like in­cum­bency, cam­paign spend­ing — and, above all, par­tis­an­ship. Dolan’s single clearest find­ing is that party af­fil­i­ation trumps all. Not only do voters give it the most weight, but their be­liefs about gender also di­vide cleanly along par­tis­an lines. Lib­er­als tend to see wo­men as su­per­i­or poli­cy­makers when it comes to edu­ca­tion and abor­tion, while con­ser­vat­ives rate men more highly in areas like na­tion­al se­cur­ity and the eco­nomy. The split is ex­em­pli­fied by Dolan’s find­ing that the de­sire to see more wo­men elec­ted to of­fice cor­rel­ates with vot­ing for a Demo­crat­ic wo­man, but neg­at­ively cor­rel­ates with sup­port­ing a Re­pub­lic­an wo­man. Mean­while, people who be­lieve there should be few­er wo­men in of­fice are more likely to choose a Re­pub­lic­an wo­man over a Demo­crat­ic man. In oth­er words, Demo­crats are more likely to sup­port wo­men can­did­ates in the ab­stract, and Re­pub­lic­ans less so, but neither group holds the con­vic­tion dearly enough to vote across party lines.

Dolan ar­gues con­vin­cingly that journ­al­ists and polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists need to be more care­ful about singling out gender in races where oth­er factors seem to have played a lar­ger role. She points to a piece in The New York Times that spec­u­lated about New York may­or­al can­did­ate Christine Quinn’s gender vis-à-vis her loss, in which the au­thors were ob­liged to ac­know­ledge Quinn’s un­pop­u­lar ties to the “plu­to­crat­ic in­cum­bent” — and the lack of a gender gap in the exit polls.

Still, Dolan’s work to dis­en­tangle ques­tions about gender from our un­der­stand­ing of why wo­men can­did­ates win or lose only goes so far. What would her sur­vey mod­el re­veal, for ex­ample, if ap­plied to primary races (such as Quinn’s), where the ques­tion of party af­fil­i­ation dis­ap­pears? And, as she notes, gender’s ef­fect on voters isn’t the only way it can be a bar­ri­er. Polit­ic­al elites are less likely to re­cruit wo­men to run, and wo­men tend to be harsh­er judges than men of their own read­i­ness to enter a race. Gender may not be everything, but, as the small num­ber of wo­men in Con­gress at­tests, it still mat­ters.

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