How anxiety about terrorism impacts female candidates in elections

When Geraldine Ferraro ran as the first female vice-presidential candidate in 1984, she faced questions like this (on Meet the Press, no less): “Do you think that in any way the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” And: “Are you strong enough to push the button?”

It is now 2015. Women serve in the armed forces. We’ve had three female secretaries of state and one female national security advisor. But stereotypes of women not being tough enough to command military power still seem to hold female candidates back. How much do national security fears play into voter concern about female candidates, especially at the presidential level?

Generally, the signs these days are positive for female politicians—certainly more so than 30 years ago. For example, in a forthcoming book (titled Women on the Run), political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Danny Hayes find that in every aspect of campaigning, women have now achieved gender parity with men.

“We find [male and female] candidates communicate the same messages, speak about the same issues,” Lawless told me. “Media cover women and men the same way, describe them as having the same traits, and voters evaluate men and women the same. We find no evidence of stereotyping on issues or traits.”

That’s a change from the early 2000s. In 2004, Lawless published an article, Women, War, and Winning Elections: Gender Stereotyping in the Post-September 11th Era. In the wake of 9/11, she found, as she wrote in that article, “a clear bias favoring male candidates and elected officials accompanies the ‘war on terrorism.” Based on surveys, she found that when the issue of terrorism was salient, women candidates suffered. And individuals who favored a more aggressive policy in the war on terrorism were more likely to support men to handle the issue.

Now, in this more recent work, she and Hayes find that the old gender stereotypes no longer show up. One reason for this is that national security concerns have diminished in importance. We’ve acclimated to terrorism. And more important, Lawless said, “We’ve got accustomed to having men and women alike talk about the best way to address concerns. In 2002, women were not used to talking about those issues, because they didn’t have to.”

Another factor is that partisan allegiances in the electorate have increased. This has been good for female candidates, because it makes voters less likely to consider gender a deciding factor. “Whether you have a D or an R in front of your name became more important than whether you have an X or a Y chromosome,” Lawless said. In other words, Republicans will support Republicans, and Democrats will support Democrats, regardless of gender or the saliency of national security issues.

What does this mean for the 2016 election?

Obviously, it’s hard to discuss the 2016 election without discussing the real likelihood that Hillary Clinton will be the first major party female presidential candidate in our country’s history. Clinton has experience as Secretary of State and also has generally hawkish positions. But could our anxious times hurt her chances?

To try to get a handle on this question, I pulled data from the 2012 American National Election Studies (ANES) survey, which asked respondents: “How good would it be if the U.S. has a woman president in the next 20 years?” The ANES also asks respondents to self-identify how well they would describe themselves as “anxious, easily upset” (on a 7-point scale), and how likely they believe it is that there will be a terrorist attack killing at least 100 people in the following year (on a five-point scale).

To get a measure of terrorism-related anxiety, I multiplied the two responses to form an index that runs from one to 35 (the maximum product of the two responses). At the max of the terrorism-anxiety index’s scale, 35, would be somebody who is both extremely anxious and thinks that it is very likely that there will be at terrorism attack this year. At the low end, one, is somebody who is totally calm and sees no likelihood of a terror attack.

Fig. 1a
Figure 1a (Lee Drutman)

Looking at Figure 1a, we see that Democratic women at the low end of the Terrorism-Anxiety Index are more supportive of a female president than are men at the low end. But at the high end, that difference vanishes. Democratic women decline in their likelihood of supporting women as their anxiety and fear of terrorism increase.

Among Republicans, there is no difference between men and women, and no relationship between their position on the Terrorism-Anxiety Index and how they feel about a female president. Republicans, though, are already generally less likely to be excited about a female president. It’s hard to know, however, if this is because the female president they had in mind while answering this question was Hillary Clinton, who even in 2012 would have been the most likely female presidential candidate.

I should, however, be clear that this is a pretty small effect. Look at Figure 1b. Each dot represents one respondent. There aren’t all that many respondents on the high end of the Terrorism-Anxiety Index. Still, the results do suggest that if, for some reason, anxiety about terrorism became salient, it might make some female Democratic voters a little less enthusiastic about having a female president.

Figure 1b
Figure 1b (Lee Drutman)

In comparative perspective, it’s also important to note that the US lags behind other countries in female representation in politics. With women making up only 19.4% of the House of Representatives, the U.S. ranks 71th in the world on the share of women in the first or lower chamber, according to data from Women in National Parliaments. That’s just behind Saudi Arabia, where women make up 19.9% of the first chamber, even though they are not allowed to drive and are generally required to be escorted in public by a male chaperone.

Is this low representation of women in government related to the fact that the US is one of the most military-oriented democracies in the world? It may be.

As a general rule, the more countries spend on defense (as a share of the total government budget), the fewer women they have in their legislatures. By contrast, the countries that spend the least on the military tend to have the most women in their legislatures. We can see this pattern in Figure 2, which plots the share of women in the first/lower chamber on the y-axis, and the share of the government budget spent on defense (from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) on the x-axis.

Figure 2
Figure 2 (Lee Drutman)

Causality is obviously tricky here. It may be that both high support for women lawmakers and low militarism are both a result of the same underlying factor: a progressive polity (though one doesn’t usually think of Argentina or Mexico as exceptionally progressive states). It may also be that, as political scientists Michael T. Koch and Sarah A. Fulton have argued, increases in female representation tend to decrease military activity and spending. Moreover, many of the countries that have high female representation are proportional representation systems, in which candidates are not elected directly but achieve their position in the legislatures by being placed on party lists.

Still, the trend is striking and quite suggestive. Is it possible that voters in countries where militarism is an important aspect of politics maintain a latent sexism about who is qualified to hold office? If so, perhaps we have further to go than we think.

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