Same-Gender Races Are Not Gender Neutral

The 2016 presidential cycle is an unprecedented moment in presidential history—the first time there is a woman vying for the nomination of each major party. While we’ve never seen such a race play out on the national stage, we have seen women running against each other for governor. These executive-level races provide the best available cues about gender dynamics in a woman vs. woman contest.

In a race between two women candidates, gender is still a factor.  In many ways, having two women candidates in a race highlights the role of gender, rather than neutralizing it.

It also calls into question how women can play up gender-based strengths without prompting accusations of playing the “gender card.” GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s focus on redefining feminism while accusing Democrat Hillary Clinton of pandering to women is one example of this dynamic. Commentators opining about how a candidate will run “as a woman” is another.

Barbara Lee Family Foundation research provides some context. In 2010, there were two woman vs. woman general election contests for governor, one in Oklahoma and one in New Mexico. These same-gender races raised a host of new challenges for women candidates about how to compete without summoning stereotypes of “cat fights,” “pillow fights,” or “mean girls.”

Gender stereotypes about women fueled campaign attacks. Subtle but significant gender-based attacks ranged from using motherhood as a litmus test for leadership to charges of being “married” to unions  to negative ads questioning the candidate’s honesty (a trait for which women earn more points on account of their gender, and therefore a strategic place to strike).

The uncharted territory of woman vs. woman races also led to a number of questions, including: Is it possible to run against another woman in a hotly-contested race and compare and contrast beliefs and records without being perceived as mean-spirited and negative? Can a woman candidate critique another woman candidate’s record in a way that is acceptable to voters?

A woman running against another woman to be CEO of her state was a novelty in 2010 and is still rare today, so the answers to these questions remain elusive.

What we do know is that voters afford women candidates certain gender-based advantages, regardless of party. They believe both Democratic and Republican women will be more likely than their male counterparts to stand up for women’s health and will be more honest, ethical, and in touch with real life, for example.

In the 2010 gubernatorial races between women, the traits associated with favorability for both Democratic and Republican women were being honest and ethical, being strong, setting the right priorities, and “knowing what she’s doing.” While voters give women candidates points for certain policy positions or personality traits, they will still reliably vote party over gender. One could argue, then, that in a same-gender race, partisanship will overshadow any gender-related advantages.

And voters expect more from women running for office on both sides of the aisle.  Women must be competent and compassionate, qualified and likeable. With likeability ranked as a non-negotiable and prerequisite to electability for women candidates, it’s no wonder that personality and personal character are so central in woman v. woman races. This is a tough tightrope to walk, regardless of your opponent’s.

This presidential race, like gubernatorial races before it, provides ample evidence that two women candidates do not make for an election devoid of gender dynamics (The same can be said about male candidates, but that’s another post entirely).

Will this change as we see elections evolve to include more women running for the top job? Stay tuned.