The Role of Gender in the 2008 Presidential Election

On Monday, November 17th, the William and Mary chapter of the American Constitution Society hosted Dr. Karen Beckwith, a prominent political scientist from Case Western Reserve University, for a discussion of the role of gender in determining the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.  Although data are only just becoming available, Dr. Beckwith presented nationwide exit polling that indicates that women played a substantial and perhaps unprecedented role in choosing our 44th president.

Role of Women in the Election

Women make up a majority of the national population, a majority of the electorate, and turn out to vote at a higher rate than men.  Interestingly, however, women (and men) did not identify manifest womens’ issues (like legal abortion) as important issues during the 2008 election.  Instead, Beckwith said, “latent women’s issues, defined as those traditionally or stereotypically associated with women,” dominated women’s vote choice.  Latent women’s issues include support for education, general concern for healthcare, programs for children, social welfare policy support, and a preference for peace and a reluctance to support military intervention.  In the 2008 presidential election, exit polling identified the top issues of concern to voters as the economy, jobs, employment and housing, healthcare, education, and the war in Iraq – all latent women’s issues.  These issues are “not necessarily issues which women support in every campaign, nor are they issues on which all women agree,” said Beckwith, but “in some campaigns for some candidates, latent women’s issues become central campaign issues” that candidates disregard at their peril.  In the 2008 election, latent women’s issues, Democratic Party issues, and women’s voting preferences “further gendered the electoral context” and “reflected the gendered nature of party competition” in the United States.

Issues in general are increasingly associated with political party identification, and because women increasingly have “distinct party and candidate preferences compared to men…women’s greater presence in the active electorate gives women more power in advancing those candidate preferences,” argues Beckwith.  This power is derived from party choice and candidate choice.  With regard to party choice, since 1983 women have been more likely than men to be Democratic Party identifiers, while men tend to be more or less evenly split between the two major parties.  With regard to candidate choice, since 1992 elected Democratic women in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and in all state legislatures have outnumbered Republican women by at least 2 to 1.  In the 2008 election cycle, Democratic women gained a 3 to 1 advantage over Republican women in all of these areas.

This shift was the direct result of an increase in the number of elected Democratic women to its highest level in history, coupled with a decrease in the number of elected Republican women to its lowest level in 20 years.  With regard to presidential elections, women have been more likely to prefer the Democratic presidential candidate to the Republican opponent since 1992, and have been more likely than men to prefer Democratic presidential candidates since 1980.  Women’s preference for the Democratic candidate is mirrored by men’s preference for the Republican candidate in the last three elections.

“Given women’s numerical advantage in the electorate, and all other things being equal, party competition is gendered to the advantage of the Democratic Party presidential candidate.”

In the current election year, a substantial gender gap in candidate preference emerged which strongly favored the Democratic presidential candidate.  Women were much more likely to prefer Senator Obama.  Gallup polls published just before the election show that 54% of women preferred Senator Obama, while 39% preferred Senator McCain.  Women also preferred Senator Obama more than men, by an 8% margin.  On a state level, 34 states showed a gender gap favoring Senator Obama of at least 5%, while in only two states (Nebraska and Arkansas) were both women and men more likely to support Senator McCain (by margins of 3% and 1%, respectively).  Across racial lines, women were more likely to support Senator Obama, as well.

Role of Race in the Election

The general pattern across states was that a large minority of white women supported Senator Obama, while a slight majority of white women supported Senator McCain.  Black women supported Senator Obama “at rates uniformly exceeding 90%,” and according to exit polls, ranging as high as 100% in North Carolina.  However, said Beckwith, black women have supported the Democratic candidate at similar levels in nearly every election in recent history.  The major change in this election was not that black voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate, but rather that other constituencies, like white women and white men, supported the Democratic candidate at higher levels than in recent elections.

Role of Female Candidates in the Election

Dr. Beckwith argued that based on the large voting power of women in the electorate, strategically, Senator McCain’s choice of a woman was a good one.  However, she went on to say, the woman that he did choose was the wrong one to pull voters toward the Republican ticket.  The difficulty in selecting a female vice president for the Republican ticket stemmed directly from a lack of Republican female representation in government, said Beckwith.  There are only three female Republican governors, 20 female Republicans in the House of Representatives, and five female Republicans in the Senate from which to choose.

So What Does the Current Electoral Landscape Mean for Women and Female Candidates?

  1. With Democratic dominance in Congress generally, this will help advance latent women’s issues.
  2. The party imbalance among elected women in Congress, with such a strong advantage for Democratic women, will trump previous polarization between women, and help advance latent women’s issues.
  3. With 19 Republican seats open in 2010 (and only 16 Democratic seats), Republican women are not likely to fare well in the next elections.
  4. Some manifest women’s issues are likely to be addressed:  women’s health issues, childcare issues, employment and pay discrimination issues, and violence against women issues.
  5. Reproductive rights will not be on the agenda; three states had statewide referenda or initiatives, all of which failed. South Dakota has voted twice in two consecutive election cycles not to challenge current abortion law.  Only 5% of voters identified this as an issue in their vote choice.

For more information on women in politics, see the Center for American Women and Politics.

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Published in: on November 19, 2008 at 10:37 am Comments Off on The Role of Gender in the 2008 Presidential Election
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