Terrorism Headlines Are Bad News for Democratic Women Candidates

Study finds that perception of women as soft on national security hurts party’s Democratic office-seekers, but not GOP female candidates

Jennifer L. Merolla

Jennifer L. Merolla

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – When terrorism is in the news, voters evaluate Democratic women candidates more negatively, according to researchers from the University of California, Riverside, Tulane University and Vanderbilt University.

Men are viewed as stronger leaders than women, and the Democratic Party is viewed as less capable than the Republican Party when it comes to leadership, national security and foreign policy. When terrorism is in the headlines, these voter perceptions hurt women candidates in the Democratic Party but not the male candidates, whose gender counteracts the party’s weak reputation on national security. Terrorism headlines also do not hurt women in the GOP, whose reputation of being tough on terrorism appears to inoculate its female office-seekers from the weak-on-national-security stereotype ascribed to Democratic women, the researchers wrote in “Terrorist Threat, Male Stereotypes, and Candidate Evaluations.”

“Our findings have important implications for understanding the forces that may harm women’s electoral chances for executive office,” said the study’s authors – Jennifer L. Merolla, UC Riverside professor of political science; Mirya R. Holman of Tulane University; and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister of Vanderbilt University.

“The evidence suggests that, when terrorism is salient in the news, Democratic female candidates, compared with their male counterparts, may have lower success in primaries and general elections. This is particularly important to the degree that more women are likely to run under the Democratic ticket than the Republican ticket. At the same time, our results suggest that times of national security threat may give a comparative advantage to Republican women seeking these types of offices.”

The paper appears online in Political Research Quarterly and is summarized in a blogpost on the London School of Economics US Centre website.

In an online experiment, the researchers assigned 1,074 individuals to read either an article describing terrorist threats in a state or one filled with positive news about a state. The participants then were given one of four election scenarios – a male Democrat vs. a male Republican, a male Democrat vs. a female Republican, a female Democrat vs. a male Republican, or a female Democrat vs. a female Republican – and were asked to rate them on their ability to provide strong leadership, their trustworthiness, and an overall assessment.

The research team found “clear evidence that Democratic female leaders are considered less capable of handling terrorism when worry about terrorism is elevated.” Republican women don’t suffer the same disadvantage, however, “due to their affiliation with the party generally considered stronger on issues of national security.”

“Terrorism casts its shadow over individuals and communities, shaping politics and voter decision making. When the threat of a violent attack by terrorists looms large, gender stereotypes lead to increased public support for male political candidates,” they wrote in the LSE blog. “Our research demonstrates that this bias harms female candidates who lack characteristics that counter an association between femininity and perceived weakness on national security. Party affiliation is one such counter-weight: affiliation with political parties that have stronger reputations on security (i.e. the Republican Party) immunizes some women against the negative effects of gender stereotypes, while leaving those associated with other parties (the Democratic Party) vulnerable.”

This protection enjoyed by GOP female candidates suggests that experience in foreign policy, defense, and international affairs may advantage a Democratic woman in times of national crisis, the researchers concluded. Hillary Clinton’s experience as secretary of state, for example, “could serve to buttress her against gender and party stereotypes in a climate of national security threat” in her presidential election campaign.

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Jennifer Merolla
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E-mail: jennifer.merolla@ucr.edu

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