Mind the Gap: Voting Patterns

Mind the Gap Voting Patterns Gender Gap Politics Feminist Foreign Policy

The "gender gap" is a persistent and unwelcome presence which reflects a societal resistance to taking women's lives seriously.  The "Mind the Gap" series attempts to explore the gender gap as it is reflected across a spectrum of institutions: politics, economics, health, education, and employment, among others. The systemic biases that lead to such gaps will be considered in order to shed light on the barriers to women's full participation and inclusion in society. 

The first article in this series explores why female political candidates are held to different standards than their male counterparts in the United States.  Ultimately, pursuing a gendered understanding of voting behavior is fruitless without also examining the "race gap". 


Accused of playing the “woman card” to persuade voters, Hillary Clinton was as culpable for performing and projecting her gender as her hyper-masculine opponent, Donald J. Trump - begging the question, why was Clinton's womanhood problematic and Trump’s manhood normative? The gendered space of politics has long been a stronghold of male influence and, in the 2016 American election, the myth of gender affinity in female voting behavior proved threatening to the reified glass ceiling of the Presidency. Furthermore, Trump’s accusations played into the stereotypical distrust of femininity usurping the masculine role of Commander in Chief. 

The emphasis on the novelty of female candidacies, either by the candidates themselves or by the news media, and how it affects voter perceptions is yet to receive robust scholarly attention. It follows that Clinton's “I’m With Her” frame may have undermined her credibility by distracting from her political prowess and previous accomplishments, or it may have increased her appeal by forefronting the transformative and historic nature of her candidacy.

The influence of gender on electoral politics and political psychology has often been studied as a gap: the difference between the votes cast by males and females. However, the gender gap is far more nuanced - making itself known in public policy preferences, voter choice, candidate emergence, campaign agenda, and access to political information. Furthermore, social and demographic categories such as race and class also intersect with gender, preventing a neat and unitary explanation.  

Gender permeates political attitudes and behaviors in the United States. The gender gap has been consistent in women’s greater support for social welfare spending, weaker support for government use of force, and stronger identification with the Democratic Party. Women’s turnout is higher than men’s, however, there is evidence that political knowledge, engagement, and participation, is less, especially when the act is a costly one.

Does the gap shift depending on educational attainment, income, age, occupation, and marital status? The results are divided. Arthur Miller concluded that the socioeconomic experience of women and men were not sufficient to explain gender differences in voting patterns. The gender gap persisted even after controlling for demographic and social characteristics. Alternatively, Susan Carroll noted that the gender gap was strongest between two groups of women: professional, college educated, and fairly affluent women; and the less well-off and unmarried groups. The common factor linking these two groups, Carroll suggests, is economic and psychological independence from men. A pattern of gender differences by high and low-income groups has been confirmed by more studies. Research among European voters suggest that rather than a simple gender gap, we can identify a “gender-generation gap”, where younger women in many European countries prove more left-wing than younger men, while the pattern reverses among the middle-aged and older generations, where women remain more right-wing than men in their voting choice and ideological self-placement.

According to Gallup polls, the percentage of Americans that would vote for a well-qualified woman nominated by their party for the presidency stands at 92%, up 60 percentage points from when the question was first asked in 1937. Although political science research finds important biases in the candidate emergence process, many studies find little evidence of gender bias in voting. Voting studies have consistently shown that party identification is the strongest predictor of voting behavior. The proportion of American National Election Studies (ANES) respondents perceiving “no important party differences in what the Democratic and Republican parties stand for” declined from 44% in 172 to 23% in 2008 and only 13% in 2012.

What matters to voters is not simply biological sex but their attitudes toward or expectations of appropriate social roles for men and women. Issues relating to women's’ autonomy have become increasingly partisan. In fact, voters describe the Democratic and Republican parties in highly gendered terms. However, analysis shows party perceptions are not linked to vote choice. It has been noted that there is a certain nostalgia for sexual certainties which can influence voting patterns. Mandy Grunwalk, longtime Clinton operative, said that “all of [Clinton's] focus groups showed that people related to her as a man… they did not see the humanity in her.” 

A survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic sheds light on why this strategy is working among Trump’s electorate. More than two-thirds of Trump supporters report that society has become too “soft and feminine” in the survey, and half of them believe society benefits when men and women stick to the jobs and tasks they are “naturally suited for.”

In an experiment that demonstrated the difference between a female candidate and a female candidate as a historic first, Professor Leslie Caughell found that Clinton’s novelty frame was most effective in garnering support among those who scored lowest on the Modern Sexism Scale. Those who scored at intermediate or high levels did not change their evaluations of her favourability even after exposure to the experimental frame, nor express a higher level of intent to vote for her. As younger and less educated conservative men are most likely to exhibit the highest levels of modern sexism, this suggests that playing the "woman card" is unlikely to work on members of these demographics.

Rhetorically, the "woman card" and the "race card" often capture similar critiques. The race card usually represents a play on people's fears of a stereotypical "other" by a dominant group. While the woman card may be played by women, men may also use it to "draw on anxiety about those who trouble the gender order by not performing the dominant gender stereotypes correctly." Kimberle Crenshaw contended that social constructs such as race, gender, class and so on, are not individually existing oppressive forces and instead intersect.

The phenomena of the “gender affinity effect” is that women voters are assumed the most likely source of support for female candidates. The narrative of “abandonment” in which woman as a voting bloc disrupted female solidarity, is particularly exclusive of women of colour. Clinton won 94% of black women’s votes, similar to the 96% of black women who voted for President Obama. In Latino Decisions’ election eve poll, 86% of Latinas reported supporting Clinton (18 points higher than the national exit poll). In the same poll in 2012, 77% Latinas expressed support for President Obama. These women voters have been key to Democratic candidates’ success.

University of Texas Professor Tasha Philpot argues that what truly may be driving the gender gap is race. Often overlooked in the discussions about the gender gap, race figures prominently into many American’s political identities and behaviours. Participating in the panel “What we know so far about the 2016 elections” at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, Philpot’s talk “Race and the Gender Gap in the 2016 Election” used the ANES 2016 Pilot Study to compare opinions from white and black men and women on several issues, such as government spending, inequality and discrimination, and evaluations of the economy. The most remarkable difference of opinions on all issues was between black women and white men. In both 2008 and 2012, black women voted at a higher rate than all other race and gender subgroups for the first time in U.S. history. Proving to be the most reliable Democratic voters, 96% voted for President Obama. They also represent a significant portion of the Rising American Electorate (RAE), which is an estimated 125 million eligible voters including unmarried women, people of colour, and people under 30. The majority of white women have not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in over three decades. Though women as a group are more likely to vote Democratic, it's because black and Latina women are overwhelmingly more likely to do so. According to Melissa Harris-Perry, “there is a race gap of enormous propositions and a gender gap of very slim margins in this country.


Taylor Fox-Smith is the FFP editorial intern and teaches gender studies at Macquarie University.  Follow her on Twitter: @TaylorFoxSmith3