But Can She Make America Great Again? Threat, Stability, and Support for Female Candidates in the United States


Elizabeth N. Simas, University of Houston

Heading into Election Day 2016, major election forecasts indicated that Hillary Clinton was poised to become the first female president of the United States. Even the Los Angeles Times, a co-sponsor of perhaps the only national poll that showed a lead for Republican Donald Trump, predicted that Clinton would win with over 350 electoral votes. And yet, several key states carried by Barack Obama in 2012 (e.g. Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) swung red, and Trump was named the president-elect. Both scholars and pundits have attempted to explain this outcome, with sexism and Clinton’s gender commonly arising as factors contributing to her defeat. While outright sexism may have harmed Clinton’s chances, I argue that her gender may also have worked against her in another, less overt way. More specifically, in a forthcoming article in Political Behavior, I argue that Trump’s calls to “Make America Great Again” may have triggered even the least sexist voters to desire male rather than female leadership.

My argument is rooted in system justification theory (SJT), which asserts that individuals have “social and psychological needs to imbue the status quo with legitimacy and see it as good, fair, natural, desirable, and even inevitable” (Jost, Banaji, and Nosek 2004, p.887; see also Jost and Banaji 1994). That is, people are motivated to defend the way things are in their social and political systems. This means that in the U.S., where male leadership is the norm in the political arena, [1]  high threat or persistent messages that America is in decline should decrease preferences for female politicians.

To test this theory, I embedded an experiment in a 1000-person module of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Respondents in this CCES module were randomly assigned to either the control group, which received no information, or one of two treatment groups that manipulated the level of system threat. The high threat treatment emphasized dissatisfaction with the current system and argued that the country has reached a low point in terms of social, economic, and political factors. The low threat treatment emphasized the opposite. After exposure to these treatments, individual were asked to rate Hillary Clinton on likability, sincerity, competence, and qualifications to be president. These four ratings were averaged to create one single score. As Figure 1 shows, those exposed to the high threat condition gave Clinton significantly lower ratings than those in the low threat condition. This difference is particularly evident among individuals who have a higher tendency toward system justification, further evidencing my general claim. 

Figure 1: Mean Trait Evaluations by Treatment Group and System Justification

simas*=different from the Low Threat Condition at p<.05; Plots represent group means and their 95% confidence intervals.

To test whether individuals had similar reactions in the voting booth, I also analyze their reported vote choice. In these analyses, I use perceptions of the performance of the national economy as a representation of perceived threat. The assumptions of the use of this measure are that those who respond that the nation’s economy has “gotten much better” should be akin to those exposed to a low system threat/economic stability treatment, while those who respond that the nation’s economy as “gotten much worse” should be similar to those exposed to a high system threat/economic instability treatment. My results are consistent with those from my experiment: as system justification increases, economic assessments have a much larger association with the probability of voting for Clinton. For an individual whose reported tendencies toward system justification high, a shift from the best to the worst economic assessment results in a significant .45 reduction in the probability of voting for Clinton. Additional analyses of both vote choice and evaluations of Clinton’s traits reveal that this occurs even among individuals who score low on modern or traditional measures of sexism. Thus, my results suggest that system justification motivations exerted unique effects and that sexism alone does not tell the whole story of how Clinton’s sex may have been a factor in the 2016 election.

But of course, Clinton is just one case. It may be the case that citizens would have failed to rally around any candidate with her issues and attributes, regardless of sex. In addition, Obama’s legacy and Clinton’s ties to the establishment may have made her the status quo and Trump the candidate change. In an attempt to address these limitations and bolster my argument, I draw on a second study conducted among students at the University of Houston in April 2017. The results from this study support my CCES findings in tow key ways. First, I find that those exposed to high vs. low threat give lower ratings to Clinton and higher ratings to Trump. Since these rating were given after Trump was serving as president, this helps address concerns that Clinton was viewed as the status quo in the previous analyses.

Second, an experiment using hypothetical mayor candidates finds that high system justifiers exposed to high vs. low threat gave significantly lower trait ratings to a Democratic candidate when she was portrayed as a woman rather than a man. Although we are somewhat limited in the conclusions we can draw from this single, hypothetical experiment, the results are still consistent with the idea that higher levels of system threat may harm a Democratic female candidate but help a Republican male candidate.

In total, my analyses consistently show that messages of threat vs. stability can at worst harm a female candidate, and at best simply remove advantages that she had over a male candidate. These findings not only shed additional light on the 2016 election, but also offer insights into the prospects for any female running for office. The resulting implication is somewhat of a catch-22 for female candidates. SJT implies that negative effects should diminish as more women get elected to office and female leadership becomes more of a norm, but yet, it may be difficult for women to do this if they continue to face bias when running during adverse economic or political conditions. Still, gender parity among elected officials in the U.S. is rising (albeit slowly) and thus, it is likely that a similar study conducted 25 years down the road would produce a different pattern results. Yet whether it does or not, the analyses presented here serve as an important reminder that outright sexism may not be the only factor working against female candidates.




[1] In the 116th Congress, men outnumber women 333 to 102 in the House and 75 to 25 in the Senate.