Earth & Conservation

Candidate's Gender Doesn't Influence U.S. Voters: Study

A candidate's gender doesn't really matter to most voters in the United States, claims research.

Hillary Clinton is the first female presidential nominee of any major U.S. political party – a historical achievement – and yet few candidates have inspired the animosity of "Hillary haters."

Critics on both sides of the aisle have targeted Hillary for decades. She was once seen as too rigid and is now judged too lenient. She was formerly too idealist; now she's a puppet of the establishment.

Are the shifting reasons for that distrust evidence that gender stereotypes are still influencing American voters? Are there some people that will vote for the other candidate just because of Hillary's sex?

You might think so, but according to expert research, probably not.

Kathleen Dolan, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, studies the way a candidate's gender influences American elections. Her most recent book, "When Does Gender Matter? Women Candidates and Gender Stereotypes in American Elections," says that contrary to popular belief, gender stereotypes do not influence most American voters today.

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Media coverage, especially of the 2016 presidential race so far, promotes the idea that a female candidate's sex does influence public perception. And early research on gender stereotypes in the minds of voters confirmed that idea.

"Most of the early work that was done on public reactions to women candidates relied on public opinion surveys that asked people whether they would vote for a woman, or experimental studies in which a relatively small number of people were asked if they would vote for Jane Smith or Jerry Smith," Dolan told Seeker via email.

"But this methodology is a problem because people could have a very different reaction to 'a woman' and 'Hillary Clinton,'" she said.

Dolan's study was based on a 2010 survey of 3,100 U.S. adults, chosen randomly. Half lived in places that had women running for Congress or governor and the other half saw male-only races. Dolan used real candidates in her research.

The finding: gender stereotypes in U.S. elections are decreasing overall.

"My research finds that a candidate's sex isn't particularly important to voters," Dolan said. "The most important thing is political party -- people vote for the candidate of their political party, regardless of the sex of that candidate. If a person shares the party of a woman candidate, he or she will vote for that woman."

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Dolan also did a more recent survey in 2014 of about 1,500 people as part of Harvard's Cooperative Congressional Campaign Study. She posed similar questions to participants that she asked in 2010 and found again that voters are most likely to vote with their political party regardless of the candidate's sex.

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Richard Fox, professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University and co-author of "Gender & Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics," had similar findings in his research. While he has found that a candidate's sex matters somewhat in terms of how he or she is viewed by the public, his or her political party is still the most important factor overall.

"In real elections there is very little evidence that a candidate's sex impacts voters' attitudes towards a candidate. In the era of high partisanship, most researchers believe that voting by party trumps most other influences on voting," he said.

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Other research on gender stereotypes and voting backs those results. A 2015 Gallup Poll found that more than nine in 10 people would vote for a woman, African American or Catholic presidential candidate.

Gallup first asked this question in 1937 and they've discovered that Americans are becoming more accepting of diverse presidential candidates. The poll also found that more than 90% of Democrats and Republicans are both willing to vote for a woman.

In polls conducted between 1990 and 2008 by political scientists Christopher Stout and Reuben Kline, female candidates in gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races do better in elections than their pre-election polling numbers would suggest, reported FiveThirtyEight. Stout and Kline believe this may be because some people don't want to appear too progressive on gender issues.

Kelly Dittmar, author of "Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns," also thinks this data indicates that regardless of voters' feelings on gender issues, they tend to vote for the candidate of their party on election day, whether that candidate is female or not. This is in line with Dolan's and Fox's findings.

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Despite the preponderance of the evidence, gender could still play a role in this year's election.

Asked whether the strong dislike of Hillary Clinton has anything to do with gender, Fox said, "I suspect that some part of the broad distrust and deep dislike of Hillary Clinton is in some way linked to her being a woman."

"In some ways, being an ambitious and driven female politician is still a little more contemptible than if she were a man. But if you said this to one of her opponents, they would say their contempt for her has nothing to do with being a woman, it is all about her being dishonest, and they will rattle off six episodes from her life," he said.