The 2016 presidential election produced the biggest voter gender gap on record, with women preferring Hillary Clinton by 12 percentage points, while men preferred Donald Trump by 12 percentage points. Was that sexism, or just voter preference?
Arguments for the latter run up against evidence on gender and voting, most importantly from research conducted around Hillary Clinton’s first presidential race in 2008, which suggests that some voters just won’t vote for a woman for president.
This phenomenon was found in “A Paradox in Public Attitudes: Men or Women: Who’s the Better Leader?” by the Pew Research Center, conducted the summer before the 2008 election among 2,250 adults. About 52 percent were women.
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Respondents said women were better than or equal to men in seven of eight essential leadership traits, such as honesty and intelligence. Yet, when asked who makes better political leaders, only 6 percent said women while 21 percent said men. The rest said men and women are equal.
So, after answering that women overwhelmingly possess more leadership traits, over three times as many respondents said men make better political leaders. The study suggests “hidden gender bias.”
A study by Yale researchers, “The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians,” began with an epigraph quoting a newspaper article portending that Clinton could lose the 2008 election because voters saw her as “coldly ambitious.”
In this study, participants judged power-seeking by male and female political candidates very differently. Male politicians perceived to be power-seeking were seen as assertive, stronger, tougher and more competent. But power-seeking female politicians were seen as unsupportive and uncaring. Both men and women participants felt contempt, anger and disgust toward power-seeking female politicians, called “moral outrage” in the study. But they didn’t feel that way about male politicians. The authors concluded this revealed “an understudied source of gender bias” in politics.
Finally, another study pitted high-profile politicians of the day in matchups – Elizabeth Dole, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Hillary Clinton. The study surveyed 453 randomly selected likely voters from across Ohio; 59 percent were women and an even partisan split. While women candidates were not at a disadvantage in primary election matchups, in presidential election contests male candidates beat female candidates every time.
Men garnered a higher percentage of votes when facing a woman than they did when facing another man. Most importantly, voters were more likely to defect from female candidates, including from their own party. About 10 to 12 percent switched their vote from a woman to a man in a general election, while 1 to 5 percent switched their vote from a man to a woman. The study concluded this “hinted at an unfortunate pattern of gender bias.”
Unfortunate indeed for Clinton in 2016. The small percentage of people who won’t vote for a woman in a presidential race may account for the approximately 80,000 votes she lost by in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania combined, which threw the electoral vote against her. If so, “gender bias” hardly describes this intensely sexist affront against women.
Jim Gogek is a writer based in La Mesa. He can be contacted at email@example.com.