This week, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to claim the nomination for president by one of the two major U.S. political parties, once again raising the question of whether women should vote for Clinton because she is a woman. Underlying that question is another one: Does the experience of inequity bind women together — even enough to unite them at the ballot box?
As a recent Monkey Cage column noted, an April 2016 survey of Massachusetts Democrats found that when women had faced discrimination or managed child-care responsibilities, they were more likely to support Clinton.
But recently published findings from Cindy Kam, John Geer and Allison Archer call into question whether directly appealing to female voters based on gender discrimination will actually get their votes. In the 2012 presidential campaign, the authors found, Mitt Romney’s advertisements that criticized Obama’s record on women had little influence on women’s votes. Similarly, in “The Gamble,” John Sides and Lynn Vavreck found that 2012 campaign messaging about the “War on Women” had few significant effects on votes.
Still, this year will offer something different: the first-ever female presidential nominee. What happens when women’s experiences with gender discrimination are made more salient by both campaign messages and her groundbreaking run? Will tapping into perceptions of gender inequity help Clinton? And if so, among which voters?
To investigate this question, we took a deeper dive into findings on voters’ perceptions of gender discrimination and gender roles from the April 2016 PRRI/Atlantic survey.
Some surprises in what Sanders and Clinton supporters think about gender and discrimination
This survey revealed some surprises about how perceptions of gender discrimination shaped opinions.
First, Democratic primary voters supporting Clinton were actually more likely than Bernie Sanders supporters to agree that “Discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the United States.” Nearly one-quarter of Clinton voters and 18 percent of Sanders supporters agreed with this statement. The gaps between Clinton and Sanders supporters are confined to people under 50, and especially men under 50.
Why? One possibility is the ideological divide among Democratic primary voters. Sanders supporters are more likely to identify as liberals, and that political identity is correlated with beliefs about gender discrimination. Only 14 percent of liberal Democrats — but 35 percent of conservative Democrats — agreed that discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the United States. The view of Sanders supporters could also be influenced by Sanders’s argument that the system is stacked against many Americans, including women.
These findings raise doubts that (1) simply seeing gender discrimination would make citizens (read: Sanders supporters) more likely to vote for a female candidate and (2) people are voting for Clinton to right a wrong against women.
This survey also asked a second question that captures support for traditional gender roles: “Society is better off when men and women stick to the jobs and tasks they are naturally suited to.” Here again, Clinton supporters were more likely to agree with this statement than were Sanders supporters — and this gap was pronounced among voters under 50. Among younger voters, support for Clinton doesn’t seem motivated by a desire to disrupt traditional gender roles.
But Clinton’s older supporters, overall, are actually less likely than younger voters to agree that men and women should stick to roles for which they are “naturally suited,” while Sanders’s older supporters appear to be more traditional. Both male and female Sanders supporters over 50 are about twice as likely as the younger cohort to agree that gender-specific jobs and tasks are better for society. But Clinton’s younger male supporters are more likely than older men to support “natural” (or traditional) gender roles.
How do we make sense of these views? Perhaps Clinton’s youngest supporters see the presidency as a job for which women are naturally suited, even if it’s taken awhile for society to realize it.
Or perhaps these general perceptions of gender have less influence on vote choice than some would think. Younger Sanders supporters’ arguably more progressive views about gender equity do not translate into voting for a female candidate, while the relative complacency on gender equity issues among Clinton’s youngest supporters make them no less likely to support a candidate who will challenge the gender status quo in presidential politics.
What do these findings mean for a general election race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
While Clinton could try to tap Sanders supporters’ sensitivity to gender inequity to unify the party, the content of her messages — policies to promote fairness and equity — will be more important than the fact that she, as a “glass ceiling-breaker,” is delivering them. In other words, what she says will be more important than who’s saying it.
The data from PRRI/the Atlantic also examines how Republican and independent voters think about gender. Overall, both independents and Republicans were more likely than Democrats to report that gender discrimination against women is no longer a problem, and also that men and women should stick to the jobs and tasks to which they are naturally suited. Still, majorities of both Republicans (58 percent) and independents (68 percent) said that gender discrimination is a problem.
This could mean that messaging around gender may help persuade some voters in the general election.
Vavreck and Geer recently found that campaign advertisements detailing Donald Trump’s sexist comments had little impact on whether viewers favored Clinton, but made women view Trump less favorably. In this case, perceptions of gender bias don’t lead to feelings of solidarity with the woman running, but they do arouse opposition to the candidate perceived as opposing gender equity.
As Clinton moves toward the nomination, it is important to remember that her supporters in the primary weren’t necessarily motivated by perceptions of gender discrimination or hopes of busting gender norms. Apparently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was correct a year ago when he warned “the gender card alone is not enough” for Clinton to win.
But, contrary to Trump’s claim that “the only thing she’s got going is the ‘woman card,’ ” Clinton may be playing with a much fuller deck as she moves into a battle with Trump.
Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University at Camden, scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, and author of “Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns.” Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.
Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein professor of Washington College and chairs the board of the Public Religion Research Institute. Her latest book is“Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right.”