Do voters punish female legislators for not compromising more than their male counterparts?

Nichole M. Bauer, Laurel Harbridge Yong, and Yanna Krupnikov

During the 16-day government shutdown in the fall of 2013, the public expressed support for more compromise and less gridlock in Congress. This view reiterated a pattern seen more generally across public opinion polls. The government shutdown ended when a coalition led by female senators brokered a budget compromise. The prominent role played by female legislators in ending the government shutdown led many pundits and commentators to highlight the more general belief that electing more women to Congress would lead to more compromise and less gridlock in Washington. These views suggest that not only do voters value compromise, but they may expect compromise from female legislators in particular while male legislators may be able to get away with not compromising.

Take for instance the contrasting legislative styles of Nebraska Senators Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse. Sasse has a reputation for voting against compromise, while Fischer has a reputation of supporting bipartisan legislation. Nebraska voters may expect Fischer to compromise, in part, because of her gender, and Fischer may fear a backlash for failing to compromise. Her male counter-part, on the other hand, may not need to worry facing a backlash for failing to compromise. These dynamics, in part, motivate our question: Do voters punish some legislators more than others for failing to compromise?

Although many different factors can affect the extent to which people punish legislators for failing to compromise, we designed a study that focused on the intersection of three characteristics: legislator gender, legislator party and issue type. This work is forthcoming in Political Behavior and available on First Online.

We considered the role of gender because supporting compromise fits into broader stereotypes about women. In fact, news coverage often suggests that Congress would be more bipartisan and would have more compromise if there were more women in office. Second, we considered the role of partisanship since scholars have suggested that people often evaluate legislators of their own party differently than legislators of the opposing party. People, this logic suggests, might be more likely to forgive their own party’s legislator when that legislator does not compromise. Moreover, there are also reasons to believe that party is the most powerful factor when it comes to the way people judge and evaluate legislators. Third, we considered the role of issue expertise. Since we also consider gender, we focus on the gender ownership of an issue – or the extent to which people view male or female legislators as better able to handle a particular issue area. Voters rate female legislators as experts on issues such as education, childcare, and health care, and voters rate male legislators as experts on issue such as defense, foreign policy, and military affairs. If voters consider the legislator an expert on an issue then voters may trust the legislator’s judgment in not compromising. For example, voters may be more forgiving of a female legislator who does not compromise on an issue associated with female legislators, but less forgiving of a male legislator when he does not compromise on the very same issue.

We conducted two experiments to identify when legislators pay a penalty for failing to compromise. Each experiment presented participants with a hypothetical news article about a legislator’s recent vote on a bill. The article reported that the legislator compromised or did not compromise on a bill. The legislator was either male or female, and either of the same party or a different party as the participant in the study. So, Democratic participants might have read about a Democratic candidate (co-partisan) or a Republican candidate (out-partisan). In Study 1, the issue was energy policy, an issue where male legislators could be expected to have more expertise. In Study 2, the issue was early childhood education, an issue that is squarely associated with women.

What we find is that punishment for not compromising is conditional: neither male or nor female legislators are always disproportionately likely to be punished for not compromising. First, the effect of not compromising is contingent upon the type of issue at hand. Female legislators may pay a higher cost for not compromising on issues where men are perceived as having more expertise, but male legislators pay a higher cost for not compromising on issues associated with women. Second, the effect of not compromising depends, in part, on whether the legislator is of the same party or a different party than the voter. As expected, people are much more forgiving of legislators of their own party. Putting this together, then, voters are least likely to punish legislators who do not compromise when the issue aligns with the legislator’s gender expertise and the legislator is of the same party as the voter. For example, female legislators pay the smallest cost for not compromising on a female-owned issue among voters with whom they share partisanship.

Of course, this study only considers three possible factors – from a much broader set of characteristics – that could affect the way individual voters respond to legislators who do not (or do) compromise. The key conclusion, however, is that responses to compromise are conditional; we cannot expect that a single factor universally changes how people evaluate legislators in response to compromise behavior.

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