Are Women Really More Likely to Vote for Women?


Over the last decade, more and more women have bee competing for high political office. In 1992 a record number of women are running for Congress: 113 for the House of Representatives (up from the 70 in 1990) and 11 the U.S. Senate (up from eight in 1990). In addition, three women are running for governor.

Not only are more women competing for high political office in 1992 than ever before, but a preponderance of women candidates are Democrats. Of the 124 women candidates for the Congress, two-thirds (84) are Democrats. This pattern is in sharp contrast to the situation between 1980 and 1990: In the 398 contests for Congress that involved women, only 50.5 percent of the candidates were Democrats.

In this Year of the Woman Candidate, one question that the nominees, campaign strategists and political analysts are asking Will women vote for women? To answer this question one can turn to past elections involving women candidates to see if there has been a "women's vote."

Since 1980, women have been the Republican or Democratic nominees for the Senate in 33 races and for the governor in 21 races. In two of these races women ran against women. There are exit poll data on 35 of these state-level races that pitted a man against a women for either the U.S. Senate or governor. By studying this record we can anticipate what will happen to the women's vote in 1992.

The Senate and gubernatorial contests from 1980 to 1990 indicate appreciable gender differences -- 10 percentage points or more in eight of the 35 races. For example, in 1990 when Diane Feinstein ran against Pete Wilson for governor of California, she captured 42 percent of the male vote, but 58 percent of the female vote, a gender difference of + 16 percentage points. Moreover, in another five races with gender differences of less than 10 percentage points, a plurality of women backed the female candidate while a plurality of men supported the male candidate.

Gender differences have depended on the party affiliation of the women candidates. Democratic women candidates almost always attract women's votes, while Republican women candidates rarely do so.

In the 16 races involving a Republican woman, there are no gender differences of 10 or more points, but in the 19 races with a Democratic woman, there are eight with such large gender gaps. Women were more likely to vote for the Republican woman only three of 16 races, but women favored the Democratic woman in 16 of 19 races.

In addition, in the only two senatorial or gubernatorial races that have pitted women against women, the Democrats have held the edge among women voters. In the 1986 Senate contest in Maryland Republican candidate Linda Chavez ran against Democratic candidate Barbara Mikulski. Ms. Chavez got 40 percent of the male vote, but only 30 percent of the female vote.Similarly, in the 1986 Nebraska governor's race against Democrat Helen Boosalis, Republican Kay Orr got 54 percent of the male vote, but only 47 percent of the female vote.

Moreover for Democrats the gender difference appears to be growing over time. In 1980-1984 the Democratic gender edge averaged +3.9 points. During 1986-1990 the gap was two-and-a-half times larger, averaging +10.2 points. For Republicans the averages were -2.0 points for both 1980-1984 and 1986-1990. That is, Republican women candidates have actually done worse among women than among men, and this hasn't changed over the last decade.

The gender difference for Democratic women candidates comes part from a general Democratic edge among women: Since 1980 Democratic candidates, male or female, have done better among women than have Republican candidates. (Except for a small tendency for women to vote Democratic in 1972 no Democratic edge among women occurs in either party preference or presidential vote from 1948 through 1976.)

At the presidential level there's the well-known "gender gap." In 1984 exit polls by CBS/New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NBC and ABC showed Ronald Reagan's support among women averaged seven percentage points lower than his support among men. In 1988 these exit polls showed George Bush suffering from a gender gap of eight percentage points. Less well known is the gender gap that appears in congressional races -- averaging four to six percentage points in various exit polls from 1984 and 1988.

This gender gap seems to come from female reservations about the use of military force and greater concern about social welfare issues.

Also, Democratic female candidates apparently build on this general advantage. They tend to do even better among women than Democratic male candidates. If we take the average five-percentage-point Democratic edge among women in congressional races in 1984 and 1988 as representing the normal gender gap, we see that the Democrats' 10.2 percentage point edge in state-wide races involving a woman candidate in 1986-1990 doubles the expected difference.

This bonus comes in part because Democratic women have usually included women's issues in their campaigns, while Republican women have often either ignored women's issues or even been hostile to a women's rights perspective.

Furthermore, Ann Lewis, national director of the Americans for Democratic Action argues that there is "a gender gap on the issues. The Democratic candidates spoke to the issues they [women] cared about." Similarly sociologists John F. Zipp and Eric Plutzer found in an analysis of five state-wide races in 1982 that women and men tend to vote for different candidates "in elections with women candidates who are closely identified with issues of importance to women."

Finally, in the 29 races with voter turnout figures, the voting rates of women exceeded those of men by 1.3 percentage points in contests with Republican women and by 2.2 percentage points in elections with Democratic women. Democratic women candidates may therefore not only capture a women's vote, but also may stimulate more women to vote. (Since we are comparing different races, this is far from certain). Combined with the fact that more eligible voters are women rather than men, the greater turnout of women means that over three million more than men voted in 1988.

The answer to the question "Do Women Vote for Women?" seems to be, "Yes, if she's a Democrat -- and increasingly so." This pattern should continue in 1992. The record number of Democratic women candidates should attract a substantial women's vote. In many races this vote should be large enough to carry the election for the woman candidates. If so, 1992 will be the Year of the Winning Woman Candidate.

Tom W. Smith is director of the general social survey at National Opinion Research Center. Lance A. Selfa is a graduate student in political science at Univeristy of Chicago.

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