Has Gender Hurt Hillary Clinton This Election? Here's What The Science Says

RALEIGH, NC - NOVEMBER 03: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally at Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek on November 3, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The U.S. presidential general election is November 8. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It's been a fascinating election campaign season (well, that's one word for it). Amid the many remarkable firsts of this particular election, the one that is now old news, but shouldn't be, is that Hillary Clinton is the first female to contest the White House as the candidate of one of the major parties. She's closer than any woman has come before to the presidency, and a lot of political scientists have actively wondered: What influence has Clinton's gender had on voters, and does it matter more or less than other aspects (including, I don't know, emails or sexual assault allegations or calling Mexicans rapists)?

This is a particularly salient question considering that, according to a study done by the Tyndall Report and released in late October, mainstream news coverage has stopped coverage of candidates' policy stances and focused almost exclusively on other issues. The results, some focusing on Clinton herself and others on a more general view of the American population, have been intriguing.

We definitely live in a more progressive era than Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to put herself forward for the presidency, did; in 1872, the year of Woodhull's campaign, women weren't allowed to vote and faced prohibitive divorce laws, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's nascent organizations to fight for women's rights were only a few years old. But in the many long years that have passed since then, it seems that gender has retained a certain aura of concern for Americans considering women elected to political office. Here's what the research says about how Clinton's gender has impacted this election.

Clinton Has Less Leeway To Fail — And Her Emotions Are More Prioritized 

Two separate studies have looked at the "gender-versus-competence" problem, one focusing on the issue in the abstract, and one looking directly at how the media has been covering Clinton over the 2016 election cycle. If you don't know what the problem is, it's this: Gender can, worryingly, be perceived as more important in a female candidate than their actual ability to do their jobs, and can affect what people believe about their competence in general.

The abstract study was released by Iowa State University this October, and the results indicated that, at least for the people the scientists surveyed, gender mattered less than competence; but people judged women in different ways. The scientists surveyed 449 people and their reactions to female and male "candidates" who were portrayed as either competent or incompetent. Competent women were well-supported; but the ones who were seen as falling short were punished more harshly. People were willing to support their chosen party if it was being spearheaded by an incompetent man, but were more likely to cross over to the other side if it was led by an incompetent woman. It seems that "women are more disadvantaged by negative information than are men," and that they're given less leeway to fail. (Shocker.)

study of American news released in June (before any of the grabbing-p--sy stuff or the presidential debates, notably) had a more concrete take on how this applied to Clinton, and it wasn't great news. The scientists behind it surveyed 93 articles and commentary from American news sites, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, and found that while Clinton's competence was on the table, her gender and emotions were much more regularly prioritized, often in subtle ways. Any emotion, or lack thereof, shown by Clinton, particularly at the Benghazi hearings and on the early campaign trail, was subject to intense attention, giving the impression to readers that it was more important than her actual ability to do her job. The media, it seems, have not exactly conducted themselves as shining examples of gender equality throughout this election season when it comes to giving Clinton's abilities the spotlight.

People Are Aware Of The Disadvantage, But Don't Think It Applies To Clinton

One of the most interesting things about gender and discrimination is how many people actually think their feelings are inflected by gender. An August survey done by the Associated Press Centre for Public Affairs Research put this in the spotlight by asking people around the country about their views of women in power and of Clinton specifically, and they discovered that people had divided conceptions of gender discrimination in general and what faced Clinton on the campaign trail. While 75 percent of the people surveyed, all of whom were American, believed that discrimination was still an issue for women, only 30 percent believed it would prove to be a problem on the campaign trail. Twenty percent said the fact that Clinton would be the first woman president made them more likely to vote for her, while 10 percent said it would discourage them.

And here's something very interesting: Men were generally likely to say that they thought Clinton's gender would help her campaign, while women were concerned it would hinder it. Whether that's just because of women's more intimate knowledge of gendered discrimination is unclear.

FiveThirtyEight, meanwhile, has given another perspective on whether this kind of survey is actually useful: Several studies have found that pre-election polling often gives a lower share of votes to female candidates than what they actually get. Possibly, the scientists behind it theorized, this is because people being polled don't want to look "appear progressive or feminist on gender issues," particularly "in states with a conservative voting record on gender issues and in those with lower percentages of women in the labor force." If anything, polls may actually be underestimating the amount of people who really will vote for Clinton.

Clinton's Gender + Her Left-Leaning Stance = Problem

Our concepts of candidates as "tough" on issues are often central to their platforms, particularly if they're on the right. And ideas concerning "toughness" about policy can, according to a study released in January, be detrimental to female candidates, particularly if they're from the left. The study was based around what impact a "terrorist threat" would have on an election, and it came up with some faintly upsetting answers. 

The study used 1,074 subjects and found that, when it came to matters of national security, people looked for masculinity in their candidates, both on their gender and in their politics; Democrats were viewed as "weaker," less intensely hawkish and rough-and-tumble, and therefore less likely to be elected. In "good times," or situations where the election wasn't overtly driven by worries about the nation's safety, this masculinity problem caused damage to the polling of male and female Democratic leaders, but in "bad ones" of heightened terrorist threat, female Democrats were the ones who suffered.

If you think Clinton isn't aware of this, you're dreaming. Her "hawkishness" has been a matter of considerable debate (or it was, before the media stopped talking about policies), and she has made a conscious attempt to appeal both to compassionate campaigning and a public image of no-nonsense decisiveness when necessary. Her most recent campaign ad focuses exclusively on children, while the Economist has noted that her first acts as president would likely be tough on North Korea and very invested in the Syria problem. This is a candidate who has made no secret of her nous when it comes to dealing with tricky military situations, from the capture of Osama bin Laden to forceful dealings with Russia and Libya.

Unfortunately, that may have turned off some of her Democrat supporters, but she knows the game she's playing: Being a female Democrat is, in an unsettled America, one of the least advantaged positions there is, and Clinton is doing her damnedest to make it work.

Images: Alyssa Foote/Bustle

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