Some of the toughest and tightest Senate races in the 2014 midterm elections will feature female candidates in top-tier primary and general elections but if history is any guide, those women won’t be able to automatically count on their fellow females to get them across the finish line.
Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Joni Ernst in Iowa are among those locked in fierce electoral battles. While the numbers of women serving in the House and Senate are at an all-time high, several recent high-profile female candidates in both parties have failed to win office because they ultimately lost the women’s vote.
When Christine Quinn ran for mayor of New York City, she won just 16% of the women’s vote, placing third among women behind Bill DeBlasio and Bill Thompson in the Democratic primary. In 2010, eBay founder Meg Whitman lost women to Democrat Jerry Brown by 17 points in her run for California governor, four years after fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won women by 15 points.
That same year, Democratic Sen. Senator Blanche Lincoln lost her reelection in Arkansas based mostly on her 16-point deficit among women against Republican John Boozman.
Even Hillary Clinton lost the women’s women vote in the 2008 Iowa caucuses by five points and the South Carolina primary by a massive 24 point deficit. Clinton scored huge victories among women voters in New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada and other states, but some of those early losses among women kept her from the Democratic nomination.
It all begs the question— why don’t women always vote for other women and what should this year’s crop of women candidates do to win in the end?
If there was any single answer, pollsters, campaign operatives, and scholars would have come up with it by now. But most agree that while a candidate’s gender is rarely the sole factor voters consider during an election, a woman’s gender is one factor that can and does sway elections, especially for some voters.
“Party trumps gender. Overwhelmingly, people usually vote their parties,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who frequently polls female voters. “With that said, gender is important for independent voters—the gender of the candidate and the gender of voters. In a general election— it’s usually independent women voters that you fight for at the end.”
Independent women voters were just the ones that Meg Whitman’s campaign hoped to win over in California in 2010 when Jillian Manus headed up Whitman’s women’s outreach efforts. Manus called losing the women’s vote to Jerry Brown “demoralizing.”
“Not just for me and Meg, but for so many women,” Manus said. “They threw up their hands. They gave up and left the party saying, ‘If we can’t get Meg elected, what can we do?’”
Manus remembers Whitman as hard working, “laser focused and brilliant,” but said Whitman failed to connect to women voters for a variety of reasons, including a late-breaking scandal involving an undocumented nanny who had worked in Whitman’s home.
Like many Republican women candidates in 2010, Whitman won male voters and white women voters, but lost Latina and African American women by such huge margins (70 and 38 points respectively) that it was impossible to make up elsewhere.
“Somehow the women didn’t connect to her,” Manus said. “In my opinion, women vote for the person—they analyze the person first and then the policy. With that comes a lot of judgment. Women never got past the judgment to ask if she could turn this state around and execute on her vision.”
Beyond Whitman’s own shortcomings, Manus said that the Republican Party itself made winning over women voters more difficult for Whitman and other GOP women candidates.
“This party does not have a connection to women as candidates or as constituents,” Manus said. “I do not believe it’s a war on women. I think it’s a disconnection. I just feel like social issues have become the wall between the party and women voters and women candidates.”
Kellyanne Conway, a veteran Republican pollster said that women voters can hold women candidates to an impossible standard, no matter the party.
“They ask, “Who will watch her children?” and wonder, “How can she cram in a run for office when I can’t even get to the gym?” and questions never asked about male candidates,” Conway said.
But she added that women candidates also have some built-in advantages among women voters that men do not, like being seen as more ethical, compassionate, and reasonable.
“In the 25 years I have been doing this, one thing has remained consistent: when asked if you would prefer a male candidate or a female candidate, each gender slightly prefers its own, but a majority says “it depends” or “I need to know more,” said Conway, president and CEO of the polling company Woman Trend.
Susan Carroll, senior scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics, said that Democratic and Republican women tend to fare differently in their primaries based on their gender.
“When a Democratic woman is in the race, you often see that there is a slightly larger gender gap, which suggests that Democratic women tend to get a little more support than if they were men running. Generally, Republican women’s results tend to look a lot like Republican men’s.”
Carroll added that the exception is moderate Republican women who have a track record with policies to advance women.
Although Carroll said she has not seen a significant change among women’s attitudes toward women candidates over recent years, she does believe a potential Hillary Clinton run for president in 2016 would be a campaign where gender could be more significant than usual.
“I think it will add to the appeal for a lot of women,” Carroll said. “I don’t think it’s going to be deciding factor for most women but it will be a factor.”
Like Carroll, Celinda Lake sees 2016 going differently for Clinton among women than 2008, if she runs. While Clinton mostly refrained from putting her gender forward as a reason to vote for her in her last run, Lake believes she would emphasize her gender in a future run.
“I think it’s going to be less about making history and more about making progress- the intersection of gender and agenda,” Lake said.
Jillian Manus believes Meg Whitman would have made a better president than Hillary Clinton, but she agrees with Lake on one point. “I do think women want women to represent them,” Manus said. “I adamantly believe that.”