Monday, April 30, 2007

Shattering the Glass or Wiping it Down? The History of Public Opinion Research on Female Presidential Candidates & Implications for Clinton's Campaign

At the height of her short-lived bid for the American presidency in 1988, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder famously told the press: “When people ask me why I am running as a woman, I always answer, ‘What choice do I have?’” Although her ironic response successfully called attention to the inherent gender-bias associated with such a question, Schroeder was ultimately unable to shake public skepticism at the notion of a female front-runner in the Democratic primary. When the excited buzz surrounding her candidacy failed to produce significant funds to support a competitive campaign, Schroeder’s quest for a seat in the Oval Office ended abruptly with a tearful press conference that was endlessly mocked by critics of the day (Tickner, 1992). Twenty years later, a new woman has emerged from the political landscape with an eye on capturing the highest office in the land. But unlike Schroeder, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is generating both the buzz and the bucks needed to mount a bold campaign for the presidency. As analysts continue to place Clinton’s campaign finances at the top of the list for the 2008 frontrunners, stereotypes of female domesticity, submission, and apathy seem dusty vestiges of great grand-pappy’s political dogma. Yet despite the unprecedented optimism with which Clinton-enthusiasts regard her gendered presidential campaign, a vast and complex body of public opinion research prompts continued questions about gender discrimination in the minds of voters and the true elect-ability of a presidential hopeful such as Hillary Clinton. An analysis of the evolution of gender bias in public opinion studies and the recent profusion of polling data for Clinton and her fellow presidential hopefuls will reveal that Americans finally seem primed to elect a woman president – as long as they find that her positions on national and foreign policy are superior to her opponents’.

Social scientists have long been fascinated with American attitudes toward female politicians, with inquiry into the public’s willingness to vote for a woman president fundamental in their historic investigations. Although significant numbers of female representatives in senatorial and gubernatorial offices were a dream until the early 1990s, questions probing the willingness of citizens to elect a woman president first appeared in national opinion surveys as early as 1937 (Carpini & Fuchs, 1993). In a survey that would become the first in a long series of investigations into national gender biases, the Gallup Organization asked respondents whether they would “vote for a woman for president if she were qualified in every other respect” (1937). Indeed, the blatantly discriminatory language of this question reflected the cynical public sentiment at the time, with 64% of respondents saying they would not vote for a woman. In hindsight public opinion scholars have been deeply critical of the leading language of this first question, noting that “the use of the word ‘other’ clearly suggests to the respondent that simply being a woman makes one unqualified for the job” (Falk & Kenski, 2006, p. 414). Future researchers were more careful in framing questions about women candidates, and the word “other” was dropped from survey lexicon completely in 1939 (Falk & Kenski, 2006).

Yet despite long running researcher-recognition of problems in framing questions about women presidential candidates, modern opinion surveys persist in using loaded language to ask respondents if they would vote for a female president. Recent surveys from the most respected polling agencies in the United States continue to ask questions such as: “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be a woman, would you vote for that person?” or “If your party nominated a woman for president, would you vote for her if she were qualified for the job?” (USA Today & Gallup Poll, 2007; Newsweek & Princeton Survey Research Associates, 2006). Although such wording is by and large an improvement on the 1937 prototype, the underlying assumption in each of these examples is that being a woman is an inherent disadvantage to any individual seeking office, “clearly prim[ing] questions about a woman’s qualifications” (Falk & Kenski, 2006, p. 414). Of course, our country has never had a female president or an official female nominee for the office, so pollsters may make a case for the necessity of such wording; but ultimately this persistence of biased language seems indicative of enduring social norms regarding women leaders.

This is not to say, however, that public sentiment has lain stagnate on the issue of willingness to vote for a woman president. In her acclaimed analysis of Americans’ changing responses to the question, Myra Ferree found that public opinion moved significantly in favor of a woman president between 1958 and 1972, with the most noticeable change occurring between 1969 and 1972 (Feree, 1974, p. 392):

Change over time in percentage of respondents willing to vote for a female presidential candidate

Year of Survey

Percent “Yes”

Percent “No”



















In that final period, the number of respondents willing to vote for a woman candidate for president jumped 15% (from a slim majority of 55% to almost two-thirds of the sample population), and the number of those unreceptive to a female president declined at a comparable rate. As may be logically inferred, “the increase in positive attitudes toward a woman for president coincides with the impact of the feminist movement… beginning in the 1970s” (Mandel, 2006, p.5). Since the late 1990s (and the many monumental advances women have made into the public sphere), positive response rates to the woman-candidate question have remained steady at above 90% of most samples.

Indeed, these numbers paint a promising picture for a candidate like Hillary Clinton – with deep running campaign funds and a prominent name among the American people to boot – but not all public opinion research paints U.S. voters as so accepting of the prospect of a woman’s leadership. A significant number of social scientists believe that the social desirability effect (whereby individuals feel the need to conform to perceived expectations of interviewers) may be accountable for the large percentage of survey respondents who say they are willing to vote for a female presidential candidate (Falk & Kenski, 2006; Streb et al., 2006). Although this effect is extremely difficult to examine or manipulate in a research setting, those who believe that social desirability has an impact on modern survey respondents wary of being labeled as “sexist” would agree that the effect may explain significantly lower positive responses to survey questions regarding the nation’s overall readiness for a woman president. Carole Kennedy writes: “While most Americans report that they personally would be willing to vote for a woman president, other polls show that a majority of Americans still believe that the country is not ready to elect a woman president” (Kennedy, 2001). Kennedy’s findings reflect those in a February 2007 poll conducted by the Gallup Organization, in which only 60% of respondents felt that America is actually ready for a woman president (CNN & Opinion Research Corporation, 2006). Such a narrow majority of individuals who believe the country is ready to elect a woman to the Oval Office suggests the existence of very real reservations among American voters about the capability of a woman to serve as president.

But if this pessimistic view of America’s willingness to elect a woman president is truly the case, then why has Hillary Clinton come out with such strong numbers in poll after poll measuring voter attitudes toward the 2008 presidential election? Since the field of both Democratic and Republican 2008 presidential hopefuls has been solidly defined in recent months, Senator Clinton has maintained a strong presence in polls and is often ranked by respondents as the top Democratic candidate for president. Recent studies of Democrat-leaning adults conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post consistently place Clinton as the number one contender in the Democratic primary, with a 17% lead over her nearest opponent (Barack Obama) as of mid-April (2007). And while it is certainly true that a fair amount of variation in these results exists (one April poll gives Clinton a mere 5% lead over Obama) the salient piece of information here is that a woman is actually topping the presidential polls against real, live male opponents (NBC News & Wall Street Journal, 2007). Hillary’s continued success (some might say domination) in these polls suggest that speculation about the social desirability effect in studies about women’s general elect-ability are irrelevant to Senator Clinton’s campaign. While one may argue that an anti-sexist social desirability effect might influence individuals’ answers about their theoretical willingness to vote for a woman, it is quite a stretch to say that respondents would let this effect influence their self-identified preferences for actual candidates in the 2008 primaries.

Furthermore, Clinton’s leadership among other Democratic nomination candidates is consistent in most of the measured sub-group populations in national polls. Where Hillary falters (with Democratic-leaning: men aged 18 to 49, college graduates, 18 to 29 year olds, Midwesterners, and $100,000+ income earners; who prefer Obama), she maintains a significant share of preference votes with arguably more numerous and hence influential voting populations (Pew Research, 2007). In light of her truly stellar showing in current polls, it seems that Clinton’s gender will be much less of an issue (if an issue, at all) than her specific positions on national and foreign policy. With polling numbers that are virtually indistinguishable from all-male presidential races in the past, Hillary’s femininity seems immaterial to her viability as a leader among potential voters who continue to positively rank her alongside male candidates. As Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter cleverly explains, Clinton’s “hair and hemline wont be issues [for 2008 voters]; her muscular national-security approach and her famous husband will” (2006). This dynamic is easily observed in the general election trial heats where variations in Clinton’s performance against prominent Republican candidates such as Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney may be logically explained by partisan preference and policy standpoints. Indeed, her 1% margin of loss to Giuliani, 1% victory over McCain, and 15% winning margin over Romney indicate that Hillary has as good a chance as any historic Democratic presidential hopeful in winning the race for the Oval Office, provided she gets the nomination (Princeton Survey Research and Newsweek, 2007).

So although the age-old question of whether Americans would vote for a female presidential candidate has elicited confusing and contradictory responses from voters over time, recent studies of the 2008 presidential hopefuls suggest that the United States is indeed ready to elect a woman president – given that her stances on major issues are in line with the ideologies of a majority of voters. In an age where Hillary Clinton is the current favored Democratic presidential nominee, public opinion research into American’s willingness to vote for a woman for president has evolved from the theoretical to the specific and influential. As the first-ever female presidential candidate to possess substantial financial resources, national visibility, and respected political credentials all at once, Hillary Clinton has already demonstrated that she is an attractive candidate to many likely 2008 election voters. Now, Clinton must merely prove to voters that her policy positions and leadership experience are superior to her opponents – a task that is similarly required of any other presidential candidate, regardless of gender.


Kel said...

Alter, J. (2006, December 25) Is America Ready? Newsweek, p. 28.
ABC News and Washington post (2007). If the 2008 Democratic presidential primary or caucus in your state were being held today, and the candidates were …, for whom would you vote? Retrieved on 24 April 2007 from
Carpini, M. & Fuchs, E. (1993). The year of the woman? Candidates, Voters, and the 1992 elections. Political Science Quarterly, 108 (1), 29-36.
CNN & Opinion Research Corporation. (2006). Do you think America is ready for a woman president or not? Retrieved on 17 February 2007 from http://www.polling
Falk E. & Kenski, K. (2004). Of what is that glass ceiling made?: A study of attitudes
about women and the Oval Office. Women & Politics, 26 (2), pp. 57-80.
Falk, E. & Kenski, K. (2006). Sexism versus partisanship: A new look at the question of whether America is ready for a woman president. Sex Roles, 54, 413-428.
Ferree, M. (1974). A woman for president? Changing Responses: 1958-1972. Public Opinion Quarterly, 38 (3), 390-399.
Gallup Poll. (1937). Would you vote for a woman for president if she were qualified in every other respect? Roper Poll on Lexis Nexis, Accession #0279248.
Kennedy, C. (2001). Is America ready for a woman president? Is the pope protestant? Does a bear live in a city? White House Studies, 1 (1).
Mandel, R. (2007). She’s the candidate! Women and Leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change. Eds. Rhode, D. & Kellerman, B. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
NBC News & Wall Street Journal (2007). If the next Democratic primary for president were being held today, for which one of the following candidates would you vote? Retrieved on 24 April 2007 from
Newsweek & Princeton Survey Research Associates. (2006). If your party nominated a woman for president, would you vote for her if she were qualified for the job? Retrieved on 17 February 2007 from
Pew Research (2007, April 26). Campaign ’08: Analysis of key voter groups. Retrieved 28 April 2007 from
Princeton Survey Research & Newsweek (2007, March 1). How would you vote if the election for president were being held today and you had to choose between this Democrat and this Republican candidate? Retrieved 28 April 2007 from
Streb, M. et. al. (2006). Social desirability effects and support for a female American president. Paper presented on Friday, 27 October 2006 at the Program in American Democracy: Speaker Series, University of Notre Dame.
Tickner, J. (1992). Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security. New York: Columbia University Press.
USA Today & Gallup Poll. (2007). If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be a woman, would you vote for that person? Retrieved on 17 February 2007 from

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