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Sunday, January 22, 2017

As Women March on Washington, It's Also a Great Time for them to Run for Office

Of the many explanations offered to explain Hillary Clinton's loss to Donald Trump, few are as ubiquitous as the belief that she lost due to the electorate's unwillingness to elect women. Yesterday, millions of people participated in the Women's March so I think today is good day to explore the question of gender's impact on electoral success in American Politics. The answer to the question is likely to surprise a lot of people, but it should inspire them as well.  A landmark study by the National Women's Political Caucus issued in 1994 determined, based decades of evidence from state assembly races and a decade of Congressional races, that gender had no impact on electoral success in US elections.

In state Assembly races, incumbent women won 95% of the time, while incumbent men won 94% of the races. Women challengers won 10% of the time and men challengers won 9% of the time. Women and men running for open seats each won little more than half the time.

In state Senate races, incumbent women won 91% and incumbent men 92% of the time. Women running for open seats won 58% of the races; men won 55%. Female challengers won 16% of the time; men 11%.

The findings were essentially the same for U.S. House races as well as U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races. A 2003 study by Fox and Oxley, published in the prestigious Journal of Politics, confirmed that women likelihood of victory does not vary based on the office sought.

A 2006 study of Congressional races by Kathleen Dolan at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee upheld the findings of the 1994 study - gender does not impact vote choice or election outcomes. In 2010, Dolan surveyed 3,000 voters across 29 states to determine extent of bias in candidate choice, and she found no evidence of gender bias. In her award winning book, He Runs, She Runs, political scientist Deborah Jordan Brooks found that it is no more challenging for female political candidates today to win over the public than it is for their male counterparts. And in “Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era,” George Washington University professor Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, found that female candidates are treated the same as men in the press and evaluated in the same way by voters.

So what does impact vote choice? Incumbency and partisanship - male and female incumbents are just as likely to win and male and female challengers to incumbents are just as likely to lose. Male and female partisans are just as likely to receive the same level of support from fellow partisan and opposing partisans.

So no, Clinton didn't lose because of society's reluctance to vote for female candidates. In fact, there is ample evidence that Clinton lost for many of the same reasons that prior candidates have lost. Exit polls shows the over two-thirds of the electorate were either dissatisfied with or angry at the federal government. Trump won those voters by 21 points. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate said that the American economy was in poor shape and Trump won those voters by a two-to-one margin. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate said the country was headed in the wrong direction. Trump won those voters by nearly three-to-one. These are very similar to the factors that led to John McCain's defeat in 2008.

History is also instructive. In the roughly 200 years of presidential elections there has been a clear and consistent shift in the vote toward the party out of power in post incumbent elections. In other words, in elections that follow a two term presidency where no incumbent candidate is on the ballot, there is a sizable shift in the vote toward party that was out of power. It is extremely rare for voters to follow a two term president by electing a candidate from the president's party. George H. W. Bush in 1988 is the only recent example. So Hillary Clinton suffered the same fate as most post incumbent partisan, including Adlai Stevenson in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1960, Al Gore in 2000, and John McCain in 2008.

None of this challenges the reality that women continue to face discrimination in the workplace and in their daily lives. It simply means that in the area of electoral politics, our society has more successfully combated sexism. This may reflect the fact that women hold tremendous power through there vote, power that they do not have management positions or boardrooms across the country.

So why is it so important to dispel the belief that women are less likely to win elections as a result of sexism? Because there is an area of electoral politics where gender inequality stubbornly persists -  women are far less likely to run for office. When women run, they are just as likely as men to win, but women are much less likely to seek elective office. And Hayes and Lawless found that one of the reasons they are less likely to run is because of the pervasive, and incorrect, belief that women are less likely to win.

I want my daughters, and all women, to know that their probability of winning an election are same as any man. But if women are routinely told that they face a higher bar and that they are more likely to lose then too many will simply decide to just not run. That's just not acceptable.