Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Think there’s a lot of gender bias in U.S. elections? Think again.

Danny Hayes, Jennifer L. Lawless

With all the attention this year to Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy and Donald Trump’s sexist campaign-trail remarks, it’s reasonable to think that U.S. elections are all about gender.

But gender’s prominence in the 2016 presidential contest is actually unusual for American political campaigns. In our new book, Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, we show that gender plays a minor role in most elections, and that female candidates don’t face the kind of bias from the media and voters that people often assume they do.

This may be surprising, since it has long been conventional wisdom in American politics that women must overcome sexism and discrimination on the campaign trail to win elections. But our analysis of hundreds of U.S. House elections suggests that it’s no longer true.

To draw that conclusion, we collected data on candidate communications, media coverage, and voter attitudes in every congressional district in the country during both the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. We also interviewed more than 70 journalists and campaign managers.

What did we find? Little in the way of gender differences.

Take campaign communications. Women and men ran the same number of television ads, sent out the same number of tweets, and emphasized the same issues and traits in their advertising and social media messages.

Our analysis of more than 10,000 local newspaper stories over these two election cycles revealed that media coverage looked very similar, too. Reporters were no more likely to mention women’s appearance than men’s; no more likely to associate female candidates with “women’s” issues, like child care or pay equity; and no more likely to report on women’s “feminine” traits, such as empathy and integrity. Rather, women and men were equally likely to be described as strong, competent leaders, and to receive coverage of their positions on “masculine” issues, such as national security and crime.

And across a range of issues – from abortion to health care to national security – voters rated male and female candidates as equally capable, and described them as having similar traits, such as leadership and integrity. Perhaps most importantly, voters were just as likely to vote for women as men.

Why no gender differences? Two reasons.

First, the declining novelty of female candidates. As women have become a prominent part of American politics, male and female candidates have fewer incentives to run substantively different campaigns. As a result, journalists are less likely to cover female candidates “as women.” And voters are less likely to evaluate them in gendered terms.

Second, polarization. The growing ideological gap between the Republican and Democratic parties means that campaigns tend to divide along party, not gender, lines. As a result, news coverage is largely shaped by partisan conflict. And voters follow suit, assessing candidates based on whether there’s an R or D next to their name, not a Y chromosome in their DNA.
That’s not to say that gender can’t sometimes become central to a campaign. That’s happening right now in the presidential race.

But most female candidates don’t routinely face discrimination, sexism, or other unique obstacles while campaigning. Chipping away at the perception they do – a perception reinforced every day by the unusual nature of the Clinton-Trump race – is key to convincing potential female candidates (as well as the party leaders, donors, and activists who recruit candidates and help them raise money) that most women don’t enter hostile political terrain. Hundreds of successful female congressional candidates every election cycle are proof of it.

About The Authors

Danny Hayes

Danny Hayes is Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, Washington DC. A former journalist, his research focuses on how information from the media ...

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Jennifer L. Lawless

Jennifer L. Lawless is Professor of Government at American University, Washington DC, where she is also the Director of the Women and Politics Institute. She is the author of Becom...

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