Shortly after declaring her intention to run for president of the United States, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked how she would address people who wanted to support her but worried that their fellow voters would not put a woman in the nation’s highest office. This fear among voters — that the country won’t elect a female president — has been widely reported on, likely reinforcing the notion that a male Democratic nominee is a safer choice against President Trump.
In response to the question, Warren made it clear that she, for one, was not afraid. “That’s not who we are,” Warren said in April, referring to the American electorate. According to our research, Warren is absolutely right.
As political scientists, we were intrigued by the question of whether voters hold a bias against female candidates — so we conducted some experiments. Rather than simply polling voters to ask whether they would vote for a female candidate, we recruited registered partisans, both Democrats and Republicans, who would “vote” for a hypothetical candidate in a simulated election.
Presented with two candidates running against each other who differed on a number of dimensions, including age, education and policy positions — as well as gender — each participant was asked to choose which candidate they would vote for. We conducted our simulated elections with two different groups of people, recruited by two different research firms: The first “voters” were a nationally representative sample of 447 participants, while the second sample of 1,016 participants included equal numbers of male and female Democrats and Republicans.
Both times we found that being female actually gave candidates a small but clear advantage. Holding everything else equal, voters as a whole were 6 percentage points more likely to choose the female candidate over her male opponent.
Given that few Republicans elected to office are female, one might assume that people inclined to vote Republican are averse to female candidates. We found that wasn’t true.
When presented with a female candidate whose views resonated with their own, Republican voters in our simulated election were just as pro-female as Democratic voters. Nearly 70% of Republicans voted for the female candidate over a male candidate whose policies were less of a match to the voter’s own views.
We wondered if these outcomes simply reflected the sentiments of female respondents who wanted to vote for a female candidate. Did the women in our sample drive this result? No. Men showed a 4 percentage-point preference for female candidates over male candidates, and registered Republican men were gender-neutral when voting.
Registered partisans showed no reservation about electing a female candidate. Indeed, they held a slight preference for female candidates overall. These outcomes are in line with other research. One 2019 analysis found that voters, regardless of party, prefer female candidates by an average of 2 percentage points and concluded that a “growing body of evidence” shows voter preferences are not a major reason for the persistently low rates of women in elected office.
Our research also reinforces the findings of several recent surveys. A summer poll by the Ipsos research group asked Democrats and independents if they would be comfortable with a female president. Nearly 75% said yes.
However, that same Ipsos poll clearly demonstrated the problem of what has been called “sexism by proxy”: Only 33% believed their neighbors would be comfortable electing a female president. In line with this, a survey by the liberal communications firm Avalanche Strategy conducted during the same period found former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead among Democratic voters — unless those voters were asked whom they would put into office if they had a “magic wand” to make it so. In that case, Warren rose to the top.
Political data analyst Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight summed up the electability issue in June: “If everyone just voted for who they actually wanted to be president, the woman would win!”
The biggest obstacle to putting women in office may not be that voters are afraid of female candidates, but that people have convinced themselves others are afraid. This could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but research shows that assumption is unfounded. If your candidate is a woman and you want her to be president, vote for her. That’s the only way she can win.
Mary C. McGrath is a professor of political science at Northwestern University. Sara Saltzer was a senior at Northwestern when she co-wrote the research on potential bias against female candidates. She now works at ActBlue.