One of the great failures of American democracy is our inability to produce even a semblance of gender parity among elected officials in our federal, state and local political institutions. For example, the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) reports that women hold only 14 of 100 U.S. Senate seats (9 Democrats), 67 of 435 House of Reps. Seats (43 Democrats) and 8 of 50 governorships (6 Democrats). The shortfall raises an interesting question: Would women voters be more likely to vote for women candidates, and which party would benefit?
It’s a hugely complicated question and one of the subjects addressed in an interesting scholarly paper presented in April to the Midwest Political Science Association by Kathleen Dolan, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. While the aforementioned statistics suggest Democrats would likely derive the greater benefit from fielding more women candidates, the answer is more complex. As Dr. Dolan explains in her paper, “Women Candidates in American Politics: What We Know, What We Want to Know”:
Analyzing the NES data for congressional races from 1990-2000 indicates that there are some circumstances in which women voters more likely to choose women candidates than men voters do, but the relationship is not overwhelming. Here the effect seems to be conditioned by the office being sought – women voters were significantly more likely to choose women candidates for House races than were men, but there was no sex difference in voting for women candidates in Senate races (Dolan 2004). Too, the effect in House races was not overwhelming. Women’s probability of voting for a
woman candidate in these elections was .59, while for men the probability was .50. Clearly, this doesn’t signal a wholesale embracing or rejection of women candidates by either sex. So, while women may be more likely to vote for women than are men in some cases, this relationship does not hold in all circumstances. Nor does it hold true all of the time. When each election from 1990 to 2004 is analyzed separately, women were more likely to choose women candidates in House elections in only one year, 1992, the so-
called “year of the woman.” And, interestingly, in 1994, men voters were more likely to choose women candidates in Senate races than were women voters. These findings would cause us to conclude that the potential for women voters to favor women candidates is there, but may not be strong enough to determine a person’s vote in specific electoral situations and is rarely strong enough to overwhelm traditional influences like party identification and incumbency.
…But, as my work on vote choice indicates, party identification and incumbency drive voting for women. At the same time, some scholars suggest that some women will cross party lines to support women (Brians 2005; King and Matland 2003). So, it would be interesting to know more about what factors pull people away from their baseline preference and what it takes for that to happen.
Dolan has a lot more to say in her lengthy paper, and students of political strategy should find the entire paper of interest. For more on the gender gap with respect to political parties, see Anna Greenberg’s “Moving Beyond the gender Gap.”
Democrats may well have much to gain by fielding more women candidates, and the November elections offer an opportunity to increase women’s congressional representation substantially. Although filing deadlines for ’06 have passed in at least 46 states, CAWP reports that 13 Democratic women (and 6 Republicans) are running for U.S. Senate and 116 Democratic women are running for U.S. House seats (56 Republicans), with 8 Democratic women running for governorships (and 8 Republicans).
Democrats would do well to make a point of recruiting more women candidates, not only because we want to win more, but because it will make our democracy stronger and our society better. As the late Coretta Scott King said:
The lack of gender parity in government is not only unjust; it goes a long way to explain why children and families are being shortchanged by government policies. For improving the quality of our lives, where we really need some more assertive women is in the halls of congress, our state and local legislatures… Gender alone is no guarantee of effectiveness in leadership. But it is important that women achieve the full measure of opportunities guaranteed by all of the great democracies. Our world will never be in balance until women have a fair share in political decision-making.