About half of voters prefer candidates of particular gender

August 31, 2000

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Slightly more than half the people in a recent study said they were inclined to vote for candidates of a particular gender in a race between two equally qualified contestants.

A survey of 455 randomly selected Ohio residents found that 63 percent of women had a gender preference, as did 51 percent of men. Of the women who had a preference, most (62 percent) favored female candidates, while most men with a preference (68 percent) favored male candidates.

"Many voters seem to use gender as one of the ways they evaluate candidates," said Kira Sanbonmatsu, author of the study and assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.

"Voters see gender as one way of predicting a candidate's beliefs and even competency on various issues."

Sanbonmatsu presented the research September 1 in Washington at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

The telephone survey, conducted by Ohio State's Center for Survey Research, included participants who were similar demographically to a nationally representative sample, she said. All participants were asked if they would have a gender choice in an election that featured two equally qualified candidates -- a man and a woman.

Sanbonmatsu said the fact that many people preferred candidates of a particular gender does not necessarily mean they are acting in a discriminatory manner. "Relying on gender stereotypes may be a reasonable shortcut for voters who lack information about the candidates," she said. "Making logical guesses about who is better able to represent you is not necessarily the same as choosing the male candidate because you are prejudiced against the female candidate."

For example, liberal voters may prefer female candidates because they believe female candidates are more liberal than males. This study bore that out: Democratic participants were less likely than others to say they preferred male candidates.

However, these subtle biases mean that in some electoral contests, a candidate may be at a disadvantage because of his or her gender.

Many voters believe that men and women have different strengths in the political arena, and those beliefs affect their preferred gender choice, the study showed. About 42 percent of those surveyed thought a woman in Congress would do a better job than a man at protecting Social Security. Only 23 percent thought a man would do a better job. And voters evidently follow their beliefs: those who said women would do a better job at handling Social Security were also more likely to prefer female candidates, Sanbonmatsu found.

On the other hand, 56 percent of the participants thought a man would do better than a woman at handling foreign affairs - and those who thought so were more likely to prefer male candidates.

Participants also preferred candidates of a particular gender if they thought such candidates were more likely to agree with them on policy issues. For example, people who believed that a woman would be more likely to take their own position on abortion had a 38 percent probability of preferring the female candidate, and only a 26 percent probability of choosing the male candidate.

The findings indicated that some people believe that men are more emotionally suited for politics than women. Not surprisingly, these people had a 69 percent probability of preferring male candidates.

"Voters' gender stereotypes give rise to a baseline preference for either male or female candidates," she said.

Why were women more likely than men to have a preferred gender choice for candidates? Sanbonmatsu said it may be that women are responding to the fact that women are underrepresented in our political system, and are looking to change that.

Sanbonmatsu admitted that it is possible people would not tell the truth when asked if they preferred a male or female candidate. However, she pointed out that those who preferred a male or female candidate were systematically different than those who showed no preference.

She also tested the validity of the findings by asking participants who they would vote for in a hypothetical election. Respondents were given short biographies of two candidates. The descriptions of the two candidates were always the same, but half the people were told one of the candidates was named Thomas Brown, and the other half were told the same candidate was named Elizabeth Brown. Voters who preferred female candidates had only a 25 percent probability of voting for Thomas Brown. However, if the candidate was named Elizabeth Brown, they had a 59 percent probability of voting for her.

"These results show that there are reasons why people prefer candidates of a certain gender, and these reasons could be used to predict the vote in elections," she said. "Gender is one factor, among others, that affects voters' choice, especially when the voter doesn't know much else about the candidates."
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

Ohio State University

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