Support for Women Candidates has been a Long Time Coming

June 11, 2018

A recent poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal reports that the American public holds positive attitudes toward the women candidates running for office this year and that partisanship is the most significant influence on support for women candidates.  While this banner headline of support for women candidates lead the media coverage of the poll, these results are right in line with findings that political scientists have been demonstrating for quite a while now.  Although the longstanding conventional wisdom has been that the fortunes of women candidates were hampered by public hostility to their candidacies and gendered stereotypes about their abilities, the public is now uniformly supportive of women’s place in politics.  Gender stereotypes about women’s and men’s personality traits and policy capacities have eased (see, for example, research from Dolan 2014, Hayes and Lawless 2015, and Fridkin and Kenney 2009) and attitudes towards women’s roles have become more egalitarian. In previous research of mine and with Kira Sanbonmatsu, I’ve found that majorities of Americans support having more women in office and believe that the country would be better off if this were the case.  As a result, as Richard Fox has found, women candidates win election at the same rates as men and win seats in proportion to their presence in the candidate pool.

There are three important threads raised by the NBC/WSJ poll.  First, it demonstrates the significant levels of support for women candidates as we head into the 2018 midterms.  Whether as a result of impact of the #metoo movement or the gendered nature of the 2016 presidential election, the poll finds that 67 percent of Americans surveyed believe that the country would be better off with more women in office, while only 24 percent disagree.  This finding supports other recent survey evidence of mine and from Pew that finds Americans shifting to a belief that women’s leadership is at least as valuable as men’s and sometimes preferred.  These recent attitudes are the culmination of years of progress in moving toward more egalitarian views about the role of women in American political life.  In the 1970s, majorities of Americans say women as “too emotional” for politics and small minorities would consider voting for a woman for president.  Today, consistent majorities of people want more women in office than the current number and see women’s underrepresentation as a systemic failure, as I’ve shown in my book and recent article with Michael Hansen.

The second major theme of the NBC/WSJ poll is that party is the most important determinant of people’s views on women in American politics.  This too supports recent empirical findings about how voters evaluate and choose women candidates when they have the chance to do so in real elections.  For many years, scholars and the media assumed that people reacted to women candidates primarily through their sex.  This focus on candidates as women first led to the related conclusion that voters were biased against women.  However, recent studies of elections for U.S. Congress and governor demonstrate that gender stereotype are waning and that sharing the party of the woman candidate is the single most important determinant of voting for her.  This is true for both Democrats and Republicans and there is no evidence that people vote for a candidate of a different party to avoid voting for a candidate of their own party.  Beyond this, evidence from my book shows that, even among people who still hold traditional gender stereotypes, these stereotypes do not influence whether someone will vote for a woman candidate or not.  Instead, we see that people evaluate women and men in a similar fashion or, in some circumstances, hold women candidates in higher regard than they do men.

The final element that the poll results reinforce is the fairly dramatic partisan divide on attitudes toward women candidates.  Here we see that Democrats demonstrate dramatically higher levels of support for women in office and have higher levels of enthusiasm for the women candidates in 2018.  Among Democrats, 87 percent of respondents think the country would be better off with more women in office, compared to only 49 percent of Republicans.  While only 10 percent of Democrats disagree that more women in office is a good thing, fully 38 percent of Republicans do so.  These significant differences between party identifiers are also evidence on “enthusiasm” measures, where 62 percent of Democrats say they are “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” about the number of women congressional candidates this year, while only 41 percent of Republicans share these positive attitudes.

These party differences in support of women candidates are evident in many scholarly works.  Research that I’ve done with Timothy Lynch (2014) and Kira Sanbonmatsu (2009), in addition to earlier work from David King and Richard Matland (2003), shows that Republican respondents generally voice lower levels of support for women candidates, whether in terms of supporting increased numbers or seeing them as viable candidates. In a new article with Michael Hansen (2018), we find that Republicans are also more likely to blame women as a group for the low number of women in elected office, while Democrats are more likely to see systemic discrimination as the cause of the present reality. These attitudinal differences appear to be reflected in vote choice among Republicans, as we find that Republican women candidates for Congress are less likely to receive votes from Republican identifiers and have more difficulty winning party primaries than do Democratic women.

These attitudinal differences appear to have real world consequences for women candidates and officeholders.  Currently about 65 percent of women who run for office in the U.S. do so as Democrats and we see the same disparity when we examine who holds office.  Among current women members of Congress, 73 percent serve as Democrats and 27 percent as Republicans.  Sixty-one percent of women state legislators are Democrats and 56 percent of all women who have served as governor were Democrats.

The elections of 2018 have produced a record number of women candidates and a diverse mix of candidates that includes several military veterans and a handful of women who would be a “first” if elected. The attention to gender issues and the #metoo movement, along with the clear enthusiasm for women candidates, may help propel some women into office. And yet, realism suggests that we temper this enthusiasm with an eye to the realities of the 2018 elections.  The partisan disparity in women’s candidacies holds this year, with the vast majority of women running doing so as Democrats.  Because many Democratic women were spurred to run this year by opposition to President Trump, many of them are running against Republican incumbents.  Since challengers rarely win, this historic number of candidates will not necessarily result in a historic number of women in office.  For example, women candidates for Congress in 2018 make up 23 percent of all congressional candidates, so any increase in women’s representation in Congress will likely be proportional.

It is clear from the NBC/WSJ poll that our political system has reached a point of new visibility and opportunity for women candidates.  The academic evidence would suggest that this day has been coming and that voter attitudes and behaviors have been in place to support greater numbers of women candidates.

Kathleen Dolan is a Distinguished Professor and Chair of Political Science at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.