This was supposed to be the year we discussed ad nauseum whether the country was “ready” for a woman president. Far more said in a February CNN/ORC poll that America was ready (80%) than at any time over the last decade, with Gallup showing record numbers saying they’d be open to voting for a woman themselves.
But trying to ask voters to accurately self-report their bias is a losing battle. In the run-up to the 2008 election, voters told the Washington Post/ABC News they were less likely to vote for a smoker than for a female or black candidate. Surely there is more bias against women and blacks, than against smokers.
In fact, many studies and experimental designs suggest there is bias against women candidates. The Atlantic has a depressing walk through the research around the world showing a backlash against women candidates or strong women figures. Earlier this year Fairleigh Dickenson University did several experiments on this, with inconsistent results. Priming voters with questions about changing personal gender roles in their own households boosted Trump’s support among men. Later in 2016 priming voters with questions about social norms helped Clinton.
Asking voters about this existence of sexism very likely yields defensiveness, not changed minds. In an April 2016 poll of married women (conducted by Purple Strategies poll for Bloomberg Politics), a majority felt gender had no impact on how Clinton was being treated by her opponents or the media. Even larger numbers (78%) said their own views toward Clinton had nothing to do with gender. There is perhaps an aspiration that we have moved beyond sexism, or at least that Hillary Clinton had.
Some of our own polling at PSB Research further confirms voters’ doubts of sexism. From a series of questions about whether Clinton’s gender helped (because media or others give her the benefit of the doubt) or hurt (because she is frequently interrupted, or is unfairly criticized for speaking too loudly), voters consistently believed her gender was helping more than hurting. Of the groups we examined, only Democratic women said Clinton’s gender hurt more than helped.
Maybe the daily grind of the campaign season reinforced this sense that Clinton’s gender actually helped her. Recall the time spent (by both the media and the campaign itself) highlighting the historic nature of her candidacy, her gender-specific policies, and the contrasts with her obviously flawed opponent. In this context Trump’s mocking of Clinton for playing “the woman card” may have reflected what some voters clearly thought—Clinton’s gender was an asset.
Further, to suggest otherwise may have made some feel subtly attacked for being sexist. Whether fair or unfair, right or wrong, most voters don’t want their biases circled, underlined, and highlighted. Consider related evidence on race: some preliminary research by Antoine Banks and Heather Hicks from the University of Maryland found labeling Trump’s remarks as racially charged did nothing to change the minds of white voters who already have racial resentment.
Combine all of the above with the uniqueness of Clinton herself. Even on Election Day, a majority found her qualified, and even more found Trump unqualified. But one person’s “qualified” is another person’s “part of the Washington establishment.” Regardless, her experience could have made it even harder for some voters to worry about sexism, or see her gender as a hindrance. She may have been a victim of her own successes.
Perhaps this is why women ultimately did not help put Clinton over the line. One of the areas of the most bipartisan agreement in our PSB Research poll was Clinton’s gender “helps her because there are many women who are excited to vote for a woman President.” Yet gender provided no extra boost. Republican women did not break with their party. Non-college educated white women voted more like their male counterparts than like their college-educated sisters. While the gender gap was about the same in 2016 as it was in 2012, Clinton’s other political headwinds were too much for her gender to overcome.
As many others have observed, voters in 2016 frequently said they wanted to vote for a woman, just not “that woman” (a painful callback to another “that woman”). Both Fairleigh Dickinson and Pew have shown voters overwhelmingly confident there will be a woman President in their lifetimes. While academics work to pinpoint the role of sexism in Clinton’s loss, Democrats still reeling from their own Election Nights could try to mirror the electorate’s optimism.
Margie Omero is the new EVP of Public Affairs at PSB Research, a strategic research company with offices around the world. She has over 20 years of experience managing all facets of qualitative and quantitative research including everything from methodological design to business development and strategic analysis. Omero is also the creator and co-host of a top-200 podcast The Pollsters, covering the polls driving news in politics, tech, entertainment and pop culture. It’s the only podcast exclusively focusing on polling in the United States, and has been featured by iTunes, Google, and others.