Record-breaking numbers of women are running for political office in the 2018 mid-term elections. Many of these female candidates are Democratic women selling themselves as tough and aggressive fighters—traits conventionally associated with the Republican Party. Take for instance, Amy McGrath. McGrath is a Democratic woman running for a House seat in a conservative district in Kentucky. McGrath announced her candidacy with a video highlighting her military experience, especially her status as the first female Marine to fly in combat missions. McGrath’s campaign message may reflect a partisan trespassing strategy where candidates emphasize issues and traits associated with the opposing political party. The goal of such messages is to expand a candidate’s issue and trait competencies to include qualities of both political parties and to expand a candidate’s base of electoral support to include in-partisan and out-partisans. My article investigates whether female candidates can successfully engage in partisan trespassing strategies.
Trespassing on the issues and traits of the opposing political party is a relatively common campaign strategy among female and male candidates. I argue female candidates will have a more difficult time partisan trespassing for two reasons. First, voters associate both Democratic and Republican female candidates with issues and traits that fit into feminine stereotypes rather than partisan stereotypes. The influence of gender stereotypes means that voters may perceive a trespassing message as a gendered rather than a partisan strategy. Second, voters stereotype Democrats as the more feminine party and Republicans as the more masculine party. The intersection between gender stereotypes and partisan stereotypes can lead voters to evaluate the messages of female and male candidates of the same political party differently.
I conducted three experiments that tracked voter responses to female and male candidates who trespassed on partisan issues or partisan traits. Two of the three experiments presented participants with candidates with whom they shared partisanship. The third experiment varied whether participants saw a trespassing message about a candidate with whom they shared partisanship or who belonged to the opposing political party.
Partisan trespassing messages produce three outcomes. First, both female and male candidates can successfully expand issue and trait competencies to include opposing partisan qualities. Second, trespassing strategies undercut the partisan strengths of both female and male candidates. All candidates end up with a net issue or trait loss. In other words, voters associate trespassing candidates with fewer overall issue and trait competencies compared to when candidates use a partisan consistent message. Third, partisan trespassing messages attract out-partisan support for male candidates but not female candidates. Partisan trespassing messages disproportionately cost female candidates on favorability among both co-partisan and out-partisan voters.
These results show that trespassing strategies are not very helpful for female candidates. Trespassing female candidates will not only have a difficult time securing the support of co-partisan voters, but trespassing messages will not entice out-partisan voters. Voters perceive these messages through the lens of gender rather than partisan stereotypes. These results are particularly consequential in light of the 2018-mid-term elections which feature large numbers of Democratic women running in relatively conservative districts and states, such as Amy McGrath’s candidacy in Kentucky. Many of these candidates are trespassing on Republican issues and traits, but these strategies may not have the intended effect of mobilizing out-partisan support. It is not only Democratic women who lose with partisan trespassing strategies but Republican women do as well. The negative effect of partisan trespassing means that female candidates will have a more difficult time winning state and national offices that require attracting out-partisan support such as Senate races, gubernatorial elections, or the presidency.