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The Past, Present, and Future of the Women’s Vote

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Democrats will do better with women; Republicans will do better with men. But women will not be a monolithic voting bloc in 2012 or beyond.

In 1938, when the Gallup Organization asked people whether they would vote for a woman for president “if she were qualified in every other respect,” only a third said they would. In 1943, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) asked people whether they would want their son to choose politics as a career. It didn’t ask about daughters. As late as 1974, NORC asked whether women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country to men.

Today, when Gallup asks people whether they would vote for a qualified woman for the nation’s highest office, a nearly unanimous 96 percent say they would. Survey firms now ask about careers for sons and daughters. And as for leaving running the country to men, pollsters haven’t asked that question in years. Clearly, we’ve come a long way.

Poll findings such as these confirm dramatic changes in our attitudes toward women, but what has happened in practice? Are more women choosing politics as a career, and if not, why? How much clout do women have at the ballot box? Are they voting differently from men in presidential elections? And, finally, what are we likely to see in November?

Why Aren’t More Women in Office?

In 1994, Jody Newman compiled a massive database that enabled her to look at the win rate for women running in governor, state legislature, House, and Senate contests. In a monograph for the National Women’s Political Caucus, she demonstrated conclusively that women win just as often as men at every level of politics. This pattern has continued. The problem, Newman said, was getting more women to run.

Women win just as often as men at every level of politics.

If women perform as well as men, why aren’t more women giving politics a shot? (Women are 16.8 percent of House members, 17 percent of senators, 12 percent of governors, and 23.7 percent of state legislators.) Jeane Kirkpatrick was one of the first to look at what she called the “ridiculously small” number of women who played a serious part in political leadership. At a time when women’s roles were changing dramatically, Kirkpatrick wrote the first major study of women in American political life, conducting extensive interviews with 50 successful political women, representing 26 states and convened by the newly formed Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. Political Woman was published in 1974. Kirkpatrick argued that her gender was being held back by the traditional, male-dominated political system and cultural norms about women’s roles. She concluded that while the obstacles to achieving de facto political equality were “enormous,” the gradual inclusion of women would continue. On the cover jacket, the left-wing New York congresswoman Bella Abzug called the book “invaluable.” Kirkpatrick’s deep commitment to advancing women in politics didn’t matter when the sisterhood turned against her after she joined Ronald Reagan’s administration.

Thirty years later, Jennifer Lawless of American University and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount initiated the Citizen Political Ambition Study to answer some of the same questions Kirkpatrick raised. Lawless and Fox find that there are no differences today in fundraising, votes, or electoral success rates between the sexes. In a footnote, they acknowledge an important factor in the gender gap among politicians: The incumbency advantage. Far more men than women hold office, and dislodging incumbents is never easy. Decennial redistricting, which upsets political alignments, opens opportunities for new female (and male) candidates.

To dig deeper, Lawless and Fox conducted a survey of potential candidates—professionally similar women and men drawn from law, business, education, and politics. In 2001, 59 percent of men and 43 percent of women said they had considered running for office. In the follow-up survey in 2011, those results were 62 and 46 percent, respectively.

Lawless and Fox argue that women are more likely than men to believe the system is biased against them, a perception bolstered by the treatment of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. The women surveyed were less likely than the men to think they were qualified to run and serve and less likely to consider themselves competitive or confident. They were less willing to take risks. The women were also more likely to find aspects of modern campaigning distasteful: 28 percent of the women compared to 16 percent of men said negative campaigning would deter them. Women were also more likely to be concerned about loss of privacy and family time. Finally, women had more responsibilities at home than men, although the authors said these did not affect whether they had considered running. Lawless and Fox suggest remedies such as better recruitment and political training, and greater promotion of women’s political success rates.

While these approaches may help, Lawless and Fox’s study and others confirm that politics isn’t a very attractive pursuit for either women or men. In their 2011 study, men were only slightly more likely than women (22 to 14 percent) to say they were definitely interested in running at some future time or that they would be interested if the opportunity came along. Polls show that Americans believe their child could grow up to be president, but few would want him or her to choose politics as a career. The last time Gallup asked about “choos[ing] politics as a life’s work,” a paltry 32 percent said they would want this career for a son, and 26 percent for a daughter.

There are no differences today in fundraising, votes, or electoral success rates between the sexes.

A new report from the Pew Research Center finds that women hardly lack ambition. More 18- to 34-year-old women (66 percent) than young men (59 percent) said being successful in a high-paying career is a top priority in their lives. Being a good parent and having a good marriage ranked higher. (The granddaughters of feminism have walked through the doors the movement helped to open; what they haven’t done is follow in their grandmothers’ footsteps in terms of political activism.)

Groups such as the nonpartisan 2012 Project and the Political Parity Project believe that having more women in office will produce policies that represent more Americans, “galvanize female citizens,” and provide a “new style of leadership” that emphasizes non-hierarchical communication and consensus building. A vast academic literature exists on women’s communication styles, but these traits don’t trump political conviction.

Underlying much of the literature is the view that women speak with one voice and that greater federal government activism is an unadorned good for them. The bitter 2006 intraparty feud between California Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harman, whom Pelosi ousted as the powerful House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, hardly suggested that gender produces political harmony, even within parties. The 2010 California Senate race between Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina produced little political common ground. The three female vs. female senatorial contests in 2012 (in California, Hawaii, and New York) further cement the notion that women involved in politics can have widely divergent views.

While much of the literature suggests women emphasize different issues than men once in office, an intriguing new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko that examined U.S. mayoral elections from 1950 to 2005 found no effect of a mayor’s gender on “policy outcomes related to the size of local government, the composition of municipal spending and employment, or crime rates.”

Women may not be moving rapidly into office, but they have made significant inroads on the press bus and in the upper echelons of campaigns. The campaign press posse was all male in 1972 when Timothy Crouse wrote his account The Boys on the Bus. The National Press Club, the nation’s premier organization of journalists, excluded women until 1971. This year, write Politico reporters Ginger Gibson and Dylan Byers, CNN has “as many female embeds covering the campaigns as it does men.” There is parity at NBC, they say, and female embeds outnumber men at Fox, ABC, and CBS. (These “girls on the bus” will move up in future election cycles.)

Women started filling senior campaign positions decades ago. Susan Estrich became the first female campaign manager of the modern era in 1988, for the Michael Dukakis campaign. Women have run the campaigns of Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. Beth Myers was Mitt Romney’s chief of staff when he was governor, ran his 2008 campaign, and vetted his vice-presidential prospects this year.

The Changing Landscape

In 1980, women and men voted at the same rate for the first time. Because there are more women in the population than men, women will have greater ballot box clout. This November, 7 to 8 million more women than men will probably vote.

Also in 1980, for the first time in the modern era, women and men voted differently. Women backed Reagan narrowly, and men backed him by a country mile. The gender gap was born, and it has been with us ever since.

Women were less likely than the men to think they were qualified and less likely to consider themselves competitive or confident.

Reporters who covered the story early on focused on Republicans’ problems with women. Since 1980, Republicans have carried women twice in presidential races. But the gender gap has always been a two-sided coin. The Democrats have problems with men. They have carried them only twice since 1980. It is not the size of the gender gap that matters in our politics. Robert Dole lost with a gender gap that was almost identical to the margin by which Reagan won. Although Democrats have done better with women than men in every presidential contest since 1980, Republicans have won five of the eight elections in this time span.

What drives the gap that Gallup tells us occurs “across all [adult] ages . . . and within all major racial, ethnic, and marital-status segments of society”? Men and women differ on the proper role of government, with women consistently telling pollsters they favor a stronger role for government than do men. Women express greater concern about the economy’s future than do men, and they lag behind them in seeing signs of economic recovery. Women are more risk averse than men. A question CBS News has asked occasionally about willingness to fly into space produces a gender chasm. Women differ significantly from men on the safety of nuclear power. They are less supportive of using force, whether the issue is sending troops into battle or imposing the death penalty. They are less likely than men to support stand-your-ground laws.

Some social issues divide the sexes. Women are more likely than men to support gay marriage. But one of the hardy perennials of political discourse since the early 1970s, abortion, produces no gender differences. Conflicting poll results on the administration’s mandate on contraception coverage make assessing the political impact of the issue difficult. But a poll from CBS News and the New York Times found only 6 percent of women said that “women’s health issues” would be the single most important issue to their vote. Seventy-three percent said these issues would be several of the many issues of importance to them, and 21 percent said these issues were not important to them. In another question, women split 45 to 44 percent over whether they could vote for a candidate who didn’t share their views on these issues.

At this point in the 2012 campaign, gender differences are large. Obama leads Romney among women, and Romney usually has a smaller lead over Obama among men. In the Quinnipiac national poll of likely voters released on October 2, Obama had an 18-point advantage among women (56 to 38 percent), while Romney had a 10-point advantage among men (52 to 42 percent). In the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released on October 1 (also of likely voters), Obama had a 9-point lead among women (53 to 44 percent), while Romney had a 3-point lead among men (50 to 47 percent).

The gender gap is not the largest gap in our politics. The marriage gap is large, too, with married voters (two-thirds of all voters in 2008) looking more Republican and unmarried voters looking more Democratic. Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress estimates that unmarried women are now 47 percent of all women, up from 38 percent in 1970. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake points out that in 2010, unmarried women “lagged 11 percentage points below married women in voter registration, which translated into lower turnout by 15 percentage points.” In 2008, they trailed married voters by eight points.

Since 1980, Republicans have carried women twice in presidential races.

Unmarried voters can be never married, widowed, divorced, or separated, and their preferences are not identical. Never-married women, the largest group of the unmarrieds, are heavily Democratic. The demographer Wendell Cox recently compared 2008 election results with recent Gallup data and showed a strong correlation between states with the highest proportion of childless women under 45 and the propensity to vote Democratic. Many in this growing demographic group are young and less likely to vote.

The different preferences of women mean that Romney and Obama will target specific types of women who are likely to support their candidacies. Obama has been targeting younger, single women and women with post-graduate degrees, both of whom lean heavily Democratic. Romney has been targeting married women. Most Americans live in the suburbs, and both campaigns are targeting women there.

Women’s Representation

Today, there are 76 women in the House (52 D, 24 R), 17 in the Senate (12 D, 5 R), 6 female governors (2 D, 4 R), 7 female attorneys general (5 D, 2 R), and 1,747 female state legislators (1,054 D, 675 R).

The slow gains women had been making in the House stopped when the number of women there dropped by one in 2010 for the first time since 1979. (The number of women in the Senate has held steady since 2009.) In 2010, partly energized by the Tea Party, a record number of Republican women sought office, but according to the Center for American Women and Politics, many were defeated in primaries. The GOP brought new faces into governors’ mansions: Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma (Haley and Martinez are both women of color). Republicans also brought the only new female face into the Senate in 2010: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

This year, the momentum for female candidates is on the Democratic side. In what should, by the numbers at least, be a tough year for Democrats in the Senate (23 of their seats are up compared to 10 for Republicans), they have embraced a strategy that could work to their advantage: Encouraging more Democratic women to run for office. Washington Senator Patty Murray, who was elected in the 1992 “Year of the Woman,” when women were elected to five seats in the Senate and 24 in the House, is spearheading this strategy. The self-proclaimed “mom in tennis shoes” became the first woman to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2001. She took the job again this cycle and made a strong push to recruit Democratic women to run for Senate seats (12 are running this year), getting more new women than men to run in the hotly contested races.

Our research suggests that this is a smart strategy. We recently looked at races with a female Senate or gubernatorial candidate between 1980 and 2010 and analyzed gender differences in voting for each race that had an exit poll. We built on analysis done by Tom Smith and Lance Selfa, who analyzed 35 such races between 1980 and 1992. We added 115 more from the period 1994 to 2010. The research shows that women are more likely to vote for Democratic women in Senate and gubernatorial races, and that this tendency has grown stronger over time.

Smith and Selfa argued that “appreciable gender differences have been fairly common.” To illustrate their point, they noted that of the 35 races they covered between 1980 and 1992, eight produced a gender difference of ten or more points. The data from the past 18 years paint a similar picture. Of the 115 Senate and governors’ races involving a female candidate that we studied between 1994 and 2010, 30 exhibited a gender difference of at least ten points.

Today, female candidates are less of a novelty, and women voters want their candidates to line up with their partisan and policy preferences.

That brings us to Smith and Selfa’s second point: “Democratic woman candidates almost always attract women’s votes, while Republican woman candidates rarely do so.” This pattern also continues. In the 1980s, of the 24 Senate and gubernatorial races with a female candidate, 14 candidates got more support from women, and 9 received more support from men. In only one of these races did a Republican female candidate get more support from women than men. Between 2000 and 2010, of the 67 Senate and gubernatorial races with a female candidate, 45 female candidates got more support from women and 18 received more support from men. (For the purposes of our analysis on this point, we are not including female vs. female races.) Since 2000, Republican female candidates have gotten more support from women than from men only four times. In two of the four cases, the candidate was Olympia Snowe of Maine—one of the most moderate members of the Republican delegation, who is now leaving the Senate. Today, female candidates are less of a novelty, and women voters want their candidates to line up with their partisan and policy preferences.

Smith and Selfa further explained that in races that pitted female candidates against one another, “the Democrats held the edge among women voters.” This remains true—without exception. There have been five Senate or gubernatorial races since 1980 in which Republican and Democratic women ran against one another, and the Democratic candidate won women in every one of these elections. While it will be difficult for Democrats to retake the Senate, more female candidates may improve the party’s odds. 

So, on November 7, when the election dust has settled and the votes are counted, what will we see? If history is a guide, there will be a gender gap in the results of the Obama-Romney vote, a marriage gap, a gap in preferences for Congress, and more Democratic women in office. Twelve Democratic women and six Republicans are running for the Senate; 116 Democratic women and 47 Republicans are running for the House. Democrats will do better with women and Republicans will do better with men. But women will not be a monolithic voting bloc in 2012 or beyond.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow and Jennifer Marsico a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. Bowman first wrote on the gender gap in 1982. 

FURTHER READING: Bowman and Marsico, along with Andrew Rugg, also write “How Close Is This Race, Really?” and “President Obama's Standing, Debates' Impact, Biden vs. Ryan, and More!” Bowman and Rugg contribute “Obama’s Weakness in Historical Context.” Michael Barone discusses “The Evolution of the Republican Party Voter.” Danielle Pletka observes “Whiny Women Unite.” Christina Hoff Sommers asks “Is a Woman’s Place at Work?

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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