The role of gender in polarized partisanship

Hillary Clinton experienced much more scrutiny than many of her male opponents and this may be due to the how male and female politicians are perceived differently. (AP/Christopher Katsarov)

Amid high political tensions, a lack of bipartisanship and the new role of gender in political elections since the 2016 presidential election, the question has been raised about how male and female politicians are perceived differently. Mia Costa and Brian Schaffner, two political scientists at the UMass, Amherst, conducted a recent study that explored this question, according to an NPR report. They gathered data about citizens’ opinions toward House representatives from 2010 to 2014 and observed instances in which the people polled changed candidates but not parties in those four years. From this pool of data, it was easy for the study to focus on these instances in which the gender of the candidate changed and determine how public opinion was dependent on gender.

The citizens who were surveyed in the study were asked to rate their representatives on competency and integrity. Other questions were related to whether or not they felt well-represented or close to the candidate’s ideology or how they contacted their representatives. The responses yielded interesting results that prove that, despite the increased attention to gender issues in politics, partisanship still dominates in elections.

According to the results of the study, women tend to be more likely to see female representatives as competent individuals who have more integrity and do an effective job of representing their district. Consequently, they tend to vote for female candidates more often. Overall, men usually do not rate men and women differently for these criteria.

However, the difference in ratings between males and females is most visible in the Republican party, in which female members of Congress are rated 10 to 11 percent better than male members by female respondents. Republican men, on the other hand, usually respond with lower ratings for female representatives. In fact, women score 6 percent lower in competence, and 7 percent lower in integrity in males’ responses.

There was a time before the 2016 election when some voters thought that gender might be one of the few factors that could surpass polarized partisanship in presidential elections. Perhaps Democratic and Republican females would both vote for a female candidate because they would feel better represented by a person of the same gender. This study has proven this to be true overall. But the other factor to consider is the effect that gender has in perpetuating polarized partisanship. Take, for instance, the divide between male opinion of female candidates among Democratic and Republican responders. This trend is deeply rooted in partisan ideas and will not disappear overnight.

According to the creators of the study, this rift is likely due to the difference in party ideologies about topics typically considered “women’s issues,” such as equal pay and paid family leave, which are more often associated with the Democratic. However, the study found that voters typically put party ideologies first and gender second. Many female voters said as much after voting for Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. The role that gender plays in this process might be more significant when responders are surveyed about how satisfied they are with current representatives.

This means that polarized partisanship cannot be solved merely by replacing a male candidate with a female candidate of the same ideology. Gender issues must be addressed in all party platforms to reduce the gap in public opinion between male and female candidates. The paradox that remains is whether or not political platforms regarding women’s issues will change before the public opinion of male and female candidates can level its own playing field.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.