I’m Not Voting for Her: Polling Discrepancies and Female Candidates
When Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the 2008 New Hampshire primary despite many polls predicting an easy victory for competitor Barack Obama, explanations included the Bradley Effect, fluctuations in voter turnout, and a wave of undecided voters turning out for Clinton on Election Day. One explanation that received little attention was the possibility that Clinton’s gender may have played a role in unintentionally disrupting polling outcomes.
A 2011 study published in Political Behavior, “I’m Not Voting for Her: Polling Discrepancies and Female Candidates,” investigates why pre-election polls in contests involving female candidates often do not accurately predict actual election outcomes. One possible reason for this discrepancy is that voters may try to distance themselves from a “feminist” ideological position, especially in socially conservative areas.
Researchers compared pre-election polling data and election results for 123 races featuring at least one female candidate and 92 races featuring two white male candidates; the races took place across 215 U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in more than 40 states between 1989 and 2008. Additional study variables included the political leanings of the state, voter turnout and the overall status of women in a given state (measured by the strength of gender-based initiatives, the percentage of working women, and the percentage of women holding elected positions).
Key study findings include:
- Two-thirds, or 66%, of pre-election polls under-predicted how well a female candidate would ultimately fare at the polls, compared to under-predicting only 43.3% of a male candidate’s performance.
- “When compared to [similar] white male candidates … female candidates performed significantly better in the final results than would be predicted by pre-election polls to the tune of about three and a half percentage points.”
- The age and gender of voters and the social context of the state accounted for approximately 25% of the gap between pre-election polling predictions and election outcomes.
- The more women working in a given state, the lower the chances are that pre-election polls will underestimate the support for a female candidate. In fact, pre-election polls for female candidates in states with a robust female labor force tended to overestimate public support by a small percentage.
The researchers conclude that “voters — and especially those living in states with more traditional views — may want to appear less supportive of female candidates…. Pollsters and researchers should be concerned about the gender of the candidate as much or possibly even more than they are about race.”
Tags: polling, Iowa/New Hampshire, women and work
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Political Behavior study titled "I'm Not Voting for Her: Polling Discrepancies and Female Candidates."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the study-related New York Times Five Thirty Eight blog entry titled "Pre-Election Polls Underestimate the Success of Women Candidates."
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example, does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.