Speaking with Authority (2001)

Voter Trends

Who Votes for Women?

“I think there are women who are going to vote for a woman just because [the candidate] is a woman, and men who aren’t going to vote for a woman just because [the candidate] is a woman. But when you get into, hopefully, the more thoughtful voter, I think that people are inclined to listen and that they have seen women be successful on many levels.”
— Media Consultant

A Close Look at Voter Trends

Across the board, men prefer a male candidate to a female candidate, while women are ambivalent on their gender preference in candidates. Our research also reveals that voters over age 50 – both men and women – express the strongest preferences for a man over a woman. Focus group data underscores that age-old stereotypes persist for these voters.

“I personally prefer a male leader, only because I think that male leadership and male headship is the way society is supposed to be run,” said a male focus group participant.
On the flip side, younger, college-educated and Democratic women express the strongest preferences for a female candidate.

While seniors are among the most likely to vote and among the least likely to vote for a woman, boosting turnout among women- friendly voters – specifically younger women – is critical. High turnout among younger women can offset the biases of older voters and help women candidates.

Survey research and focus groups show that party is the most powerful factor with voters. Analysis of exit polls from the 1998 cycle underscore the interaction between party, gender and demographic characteristics in voters’ preferences:

  • Republicans and Republican-leaning voters tend to vote along party lines, rather than gender lines, while Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters are more likely to factor in gender.
  • While more educated voters of both parties show stronger support for Democratic women candidates, these candidates have trouble winning support among some key Democratic constituencies such as blue-collar men and senior Democratic men.

Changing trends in voter registration and demographics may prompt a shift in the conclusions listed above. Campaigns should care- fully evaluate voter trends among undeclared voters when compiling research and developing strategy. More and more, these voters are fiscally conservative and socially moderate with an open mind about gender – particularly in middle-income and upscale suburbs.

Forming a Habit

Ironically, regardless of party affiliation or gender preferences, survey data show that voters are most likely to vote for a woman if they can recall having previously voted for a woman in elective office.

Exit poll data revealed that voters who lived in states governed by a woman – New Jersey, New Hampshire and Arizona – were narrowly oriented toward voting for a woman over a man. Collectively, voters in these states preferred a woman to a man by a three-point margin.

In states where voters are accustomed to women candidates for statewide office – sometimes called “women-exposed states” – such exposure, however, tends to polarize male and female voters.

Underneath the data, it appears that having a woman governor can exacerbate gender biases – women voters become more pro-woman, while men voters become more stridently pro-man. In states governed by a woman in 1998, women preferred a female candidate for governor by 18 percentage points, however men prefer a male governor by a 15 point margin.

To help more women win, it is essential to continue to persuade older voters, but the key to more consistent success lies in informing younger women and getting them to the polls.

All of the women gubernatorial candidates who ran in 1998 had significant pockets of support among younger women. This was particularly true for Democratic women running in open seats or as challengers, but was also true in one noteworthy case of a Republican incumbent – Governor Jane Dee Hull of Arizona. Hull won a strong margin among younger women despite their nearly even split in party affiliation.

It also is worth mentioning the power of incumbency for women governors. Incumbency helps erase some gender-based barriers that women candidates face. Regardless of party, incumbents in 1998 had a substantial electoral advantage, as evidenced by the reelections of Governor Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Governor Jane Dee Hull (R-Ariz.).

In other words, incumbency seems to grant the same advantages to men and women.

For Candidates

  1. Understand your potential vote. Study information on voter trends for women candidates and on family-oriented issues like choice, welfare reform, healthcare. Evaluate the capacity of your state’s women’s networks to identify, persuade and move new women voters to the polls.
  2. Go beyond party label. Take a careful look at undeclared male and female voters, particularly in middle- and upper middle-class suburban areas. Well-educated and well-off women of all ages are worth exploring in polling and focus groups to find the available subset for you.
  3. Go beyond political networks. Women candidates have found that professional and community service networks of lawyers, doctors, engineers and women activists from the Junior League to Mothers Against Drunk Driving are rich in volunteer and communications help. Start early, ask everybody.
  4. Get-Out-The-Vote. Efforts to get more women to vote have been cropping up across the country. For women candidates, these efforts can provide the critical edge. Find out what coordinated campaigns have been successful and assess the national organizations you trust to mount such a campaign. Invite them in to your state.