The Gendered Politics of Congressional Elections

Sarah Fulton, Texas A&M University

Kostanca Dhima, Texas A&M University


When Senator Elizabeth Warren was asked whether she believed that the men in the 2020 presidential race have a better chance of beating Trump solely because of their gender, she answered, “I believe they may think so, but they’d be wrong. […] What the data show now is that in competitive elections, women are out-performing men.”[1]

The question and Senator Warren’s answer reflects a paradox regarding the effects of candidate sex on voter evaluation: A variety of research shows that women are as likely as men to win,[2] and yet there is ample evidence that voters hold attitudes that disadvantage female candidates.[3] How can both of these things be true at the same time?

We argue that this paradox can be explained once we consider differences in candidate quality. Research suggests that barriers to entry for women in politics are greater than those for men – that women face a more difficult path to office and have to “work harder” to win elections,[4] resulting in more qualified female candidates on average.[5] Women also tend to hold themselves back as candidates until they view themselves as being able to win.[6]  So when we neglect differences in candidate qualification, it might appear like women do as well as men when they run but in reality, this only holds when women have a quality advantage. In other words, women do as well as men when they are more qualified but not when they are as qualified.

We demonstrate the effect of candidate quality on vote-choice and election outcomes for every two-party congressional race from 2006 to 2018. We find that female Democratic candidates are more qualified than their male counterparts, and that the qualification advantage explains why they are as likely (if not more likely) to attract the support of voters. When qualifications are held constant, female Democrats receive significantly fewer votes than their male co-partisans.

We also find that respondent gender and partisanship mediate the extent of the penalty, with male Republican and male independent voters being significantly more punitive. Female Democratic candidates can attract the support of male Republican and male independent voters when they have a qualifications advantage, but are penalized when they are merely “as qualified.”

Why would male Republican and male independents penalize female Democrats? Although we cannot say for certain what the nature of the penalty is, the penalty is not related to perceived ideological distance, to general perceptions that women are unfit for political office, and gender affinity. Since male Republican and male independents appear to be averse to something about female Democrats that fails to provoke a negative reaction from female voters (of any partisan stripe) and male Democrats, and fails to apply to female Republicans, one possible explanation is that “modern sexism” – resentment about men’s marginalization and loss of privilege – is at play. Female Democrats’ emphasis of gender egalitarian themes may cause a backlash among male voters, particularly Republicans and independents, but not female voters or Democrats, who are more likely to be sympathetic to those demands and/or to stand to benefit from them.

When we evaluate election outcomes, we again find that female Democratic candidates with a qualifications advantage are as likely as males to win elections; but are significantly less likely than males to win when qualifications are held constant. The proportion of male Republicans and male independents in a district determines the extent of the penalty, with women’s electoral prospects significantly declining as this proportion increases.

By showing that qualifications and male Republicans and male independents are consequential to women’s electoral fortunes both at the individual- and aggregate-level, we provide strong validation of the thesis that gender matters to voting behavior and election outcomes, over and above conventional explanations.

So yes, as Senator Warren responded, women can win, but they need to be highly qualified and strategic about the races in which they compete. Because male Republicans and male independent voters play a significant role in women’s electoral fortunes – over and above known factors in the literature – this group of voters should be taken into account by both operatives and scholars alike.




[2] Seltzer, Newman and Leighton, 1997; Darcy, Welch and Clark, 1994; Burrell, 1994; Darcy and Schramm, 1997; Lawless 2015

[3] Mendez and Osborne 2010; Dolan and Sanbonmatsu 2009; Schneider and Bos 2014; Fulton and Ondercin 2013; Sanbonmatsu 2002b

[4] Anzia and Berry 2011; Lazarus and Steigerwalt 2018; Pearson and McGhee 2013

[5] Fulton 2012; Fulton 2014

[6] Fulton et al. 2006

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