Election Campaigns Don’t Come in Him and Her

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Credit: Yortw on Flickr, under Creative Commons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Current media research demonstrates that people’s evaluations of female candidates can be shaped by the information candidates include in their campaigns.

Chingching Chang and Jacqueline Hitchon caution that voters often default to gender stereotypes to "fill in" gaps in their information about candidates. Their research finds that when campaign ads do not contain information about particular policy areas, voters use gender as a cue to discern a candidate’s abilities or position in those areas. However, when information about a candidate’s strengths in a policy area is provided, voters readily rely on that concrete information in making judgments. They also find that female candidates are most well served by keeping the tone of campaign ads neutral, as overly positive or negative emotional tones are evaluated as less appropriate.

Another concern along these lines has involved the use of negative advertising by female candidates. Some early researchers feared that negative ads would violate stereotyped expectations of women as kinder, less aggressive candidates. However, female candidates have come to employ negative advertising in equal proportions with men and have had success in using attack ads to bolster their own issue competence. Beyond that, Kim Fridkin, Pat Kenney and Gina Woodall find that negative advertising is less successful at shaping people’s evaluations of female candidates than it is in influencing attitudes toward men.

Candidates Present Themselves Similarly

While some research suggests that women should think carefully about campaign strategy and play to their stereotyped strengths to benefit from positive stereotypes, there is relatively little evidence that women behave differently from men in presenting themselves to the public, at least with regard to the issues on which they campaign. These findings are consistent whether considering television advertisements or campaign websites. Dianne Bystrom and her colleagues examine both ads and websites for Senate and gubernatorial candidates in the 1990s and early 2000s and find very few differences in issue presentation between female and male candidates. Relying on data from the Wisconsin Ads Project for congressional races in 2000 and 2002, Virginia Sapiro and her coauthors find much more similarity among women and men in their campaign ads and suggest that the limited differences are explained by race-specific electoral context. In examining the potential impact of the Sept. 11th attacks on the way candidates campaign, Patricia Strach and Virginia Sapiro find that Republican men were more likely to give attention to military and foreign affairs issues in 2002 as compared with 2000 than were Democratic men or women of both parties. However, this gender difference, which is also driven by political party considerations, is the only difference they identify in campaigns immediately following the tragedy.

Finally, in examining congressional candidate websites in 2000 and 2002, I find the same pattern of no differences among female and male candidates in their issue presentations. Instead, these data demonstrate that candidates, both women and men, are strategic actors who campaign on the important issues of the day. Any differences in candidate issue presentation are generally explained by political party or incumbency, which is in line with other works in this area. Based on these data, it does not appear that candidates, women or men, attempt to play to voter stereotypes in any significant way. This would suggest that any remaining voter stereotyping or media coverage bias is not a result of significant or overt attempts by candidates to ensure that they are perceived in gender-stereotypic ways.

For More Information:

Buy the Book, “When Does Gender Matter?: Women Candidates and Gender Stereotypes in American Elections“:

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