Do Polls Underestimate Female Candidates?

A study published last fall in the academic journal Political Behavior but that has only recently gained attention in the popular media suggests that pre-election polls consistently underestimate the success of female political candidates. Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon is particularly strong in states that traditionally have a more conservative culture when it comes to gender roles.

Authors Christopher T. Stout of Wellesley College and Reuben Kline of the European University Institute (both of whom were grad students at UC Irvine at the time!) set out to find statistical evidence of whether pre-election polls, which are often accurate but can contain serious biases, demonstrate a systematic bias against women running for office. The theory goes that in contrast to the Bradley/Wilder Effect in which people are more likely to give the “socially acceptable” answer that they would vote for African American candidates even if they wouldn’t, the negative stereotypes of feminism may make people less likely to say they’d vote for a woman, even if they personally hold a more progressive feminist viewpoint. This backlash, then, would result in inaccurate and artificially low polling numbers for female candidates for public office. And this discrepancy between public comment and privately held beliefs is even more likely to be prevalent in places where gender norms are policed more strongly by society. Stout and Kline elaborate:

Female candidates are sometimes portrayed in the media as having the negative stereotypical qualities associated with feminism (Templin 1999). For example, Glenn Beck notes “˜”˜[Hillary Clinton] is like the stereotypical…she’s the stereotypical bitch, you know what I mean? She’s that stereotypical nagging…’’ (National Organization for Women 2008). Democratic Strategist Paul Begala and Washington Post staff writer Tony Kornheiser have drawn comparisons between Florida US Senate candidate Katherine Harris and Disney villain Cruella De Vil (CNN 2004; Kornheiser 2000). These characterizations of female candidates as being too aggressive, cold, and calculating are often the same negative stereotypes associated with the feminist movement. Moreover, female candidates who run for elected office are often portrayed as being irresponsible home makers. Kantor and Swarns in a 2008 New York Times article identify this perception among voters “˜”˜Many women expressed incredulity–some of it polite, some angry–that Ms. Palin would pursue the vice presidency given her younger son’s age…’’ (Kantor and Swarns 2008, p. 1). This negative dialogue about such candidates can make voters feel uncomfortable about voicing their support for these candidates publicly, even if, for ideological or other reasons, they support these candidates privately.

They used a very intriguing mix of data at the individual (surveys), aggregate (election results), and contextual levels (where the election was held)* to test this hypothesis and they found that while pre-election polls on the whole predict election results pretty accurately for white males, they tend to underestimate the results by more than 2 percentage points when female candidates are involved. This held true even for women who were predicted to take the majority vote; the polls consistently predicted a smaller margin of victory than actually was the case.

Apart from a discussion of what these findings show about the perception of women running for public office, there could be actual ramifications from the Richards Effect, as Stout and Kline dub it (after Texas Governor Ann Richards). In American politics, the prevailing feeling is that “success breeds success.” That is to say, people love to hop on the bandwagon for someone who already looks to be a winner. If women are being consistently underrated, it can hurt their chances for gaining further support. And more than anything else, high poll numbers often translate to campaign dollars. Being underestimated in the polls could really hinder a female candidate’s fundraising efforts.

*Since PM has a very wide audience, I won’t go into the (extensive!) methodology, but it’s quite an interesting paper! For those of you interested in that sort of thing, you can find a copy of the paper here.

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Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

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