by ABRAHAM UNGER, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Government & Politics
In reflecting on why Americans have not elected a female president yet, we must look back to the closest chance the electorate has had to vote for one. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign was the first in which a woman ran a viable, indeed almost victorious, presidential race for a major party.
While the theoretical literature is still new and sparse on the formative 2008 Democratic party presidential primaries race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one fact is clear. The primary data indicates that “more Americans see gender as more of a barrier in presidential politics than race.” (March 15-18, 2008 CBS News Poll) The poll that reported that finding also concluded that “39 percent of registered voters said a woman faces more obstacles in a presidential race, while 33 percent said a black candidate does. Forty-two percent of voters said they felt Senator Hillary Clinton was treated more harshly because of her gender, while just 27 percent felt Senator Barack Obama was treated more harshly because of his race. Respondents say more people they know would be likely to vote for a black candidate than a woman. Fifty six percent said that ‘most people” they know would vote for a black candidate for president, while 46 percent said the same of a woman candidate. 45 percent said “most people” they know would not vote for a woman. This does not mean racism is part of the American past. Respondents still called racism (42 percent) a “more serious” problem than sexism (10 percent). (Ibid.)
While more women than men voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, both in states where she won and in states she lost, this was not enough to give Clinton the electoral edge against Obama. She did not gain a massive majority of the female vote, while Obama gained the vast majority of the minority vote. The emergent literature on the 2008 presidential election posits that President Obama won against McCain because of a burgeoning voter coalition of African Americans, Hispanics and youth under 30. (Caswell, 2009) Additionally, there are analyses that strongly demonstrate “women’s votes were a significant factor” in President Obama’s victory.
Why didn’t more women vote for Clinton? While the evidence isn’t yet conclusive, anecdotal reporting suggests that a sizeable proportion of middle-aged women did not feel compelled by a woman’s presidential candidacy nor inspired to vote for a woman. Senior women, who came of age during the pioneering period of the feminist movement, did vote for Clinton, while younger women were drawn to Obama. Women in the middle were split between the two. Many older women looked back at the 1984 vice presidential candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro and felt that opportunities to vote for a national female candidate were too rare to miss, while some middle-aged women — enough to dilute that cohort’s vote — remained less passionate and viewed the Clinton race as important but not a once-in-a-lifetime rarity. (Read the Time story here.)
The male vote between Obama and McCain was almost tied, varying within a single percentage point. Obama received more of the white male vote than any Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter. However, a gender gap emerged between the Obama and McCain candidacies. Fifty-six percent of women voted for Obama, while only 49 percent of men did. Traditionally, a gender gap of between 4 and 11 percentage points exists in presidential elections. What is the gender gap, and how can it play into a presidential election, especially for a female candidate?
More women tend to be Democrats than men. This gap widens with women’s greater education. Gender differences in actual voter turnout have almost disappeared. Finally, women tend to hold more typically liberal values than do men. For example, women are more likely to support government action to promote equality and government spending on social programs, and they are less supportive of going to war. (Janda, 2012) As one scholar writes, “Little cognitive effort is required to fit the category ‘woman candidate’ with the category ‘Democratic candidate’.” (Koch, 2002) Republicans are less likely to vote for a female candidate. Interestingly, Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential candidacy alienated women voters but did nothing to help the Republicans with the male vote. Many women simply viewed Palin as too conservative.
If we try to organize these factors into a coherent framework within which to better understand why America has not yet voted for a female president, conditions emerge that help us predict the key variables that need to be in place for such an event to occur. After all, good theory should have predictive value. The two key elements in just such a scenario are:
1. most importantly, the electorate needs to be trending Democratic, and
2. secondarily, the presidential candidate — assuming she is in the Democratic party — needs to capture an overwhelming majority of the female vote, while retaining the minority and youth votes, combined with a sizeable portion of the male vote.
That can only be done if she takes on seemingly more stereotypically “compassionate” Democratic policy positions without playing too noticeably to feminist rhetoric. The age of a self-conscious feminism has clearly passed for middle-aged and younger female voters, as well as for much of the rest of the electorate. All that seems to be needed now for this moment to occur is yet another potent female candidate able to run a campaign that brings together and generates strong voter turn-out from a minority-and-youth-based coalition, as did Barack Obama in a period of strength for the Democratic party.
- The major source for data and analysis is the Center for American Women and Politics
- One poll produced by the Gallup organization is frequently cited about the influence of public perceptions of candidates’ characteristics, such as gender, on voter choices. It was taken before the Obama victory over Clinton and discounts the gender gap that clearly emerged in the final election between Obama and McCain. Nonetheless, it contains some important conclusions. Even more interestingly, it implies that respondents to the poll’s questions may either have not been representative or not completely honest about their attitudes.