The Past, Present, and Future of the Women’s Vote: 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.
October 9, 2012
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.
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.
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…