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The Feminine Effect On Presidential Politics

Former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (left) waves to the crowd after a campaign appearance in Minneapolis for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) on April 7, 2010.
Jim Mone
Former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (left) waves to the crowd after a campaign appearance in Minneapolis for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) on April 7, 2010.

By one count, of the more than 200 people who have run for president over the years, fewer than 30 have been women.

While women have made headway in the nation's boardrooms and science labs — and even in politics — in recent times, they have not received top-of-the-ticket nominations from the Democratic or Republican parties.

With Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann considering runs as Republican candidates, the 2012 political race might be a game-changer.

The two women are winning straw polls here and there. At Liberty University, for instance, Bachmann won a straw vote in April, indicating she can attract younger conservatives. And Palin has won reader-response polls this year on the Free Republic and Hot Air websites.

Both women are popping up for photo ops and sending signal flares to get attention. Palin recently launched a glitzy bus tour; Bachmann reportedly has hired campaign consultant-to-the-stars Ed Rollins. In the next few weeks — with official announcements — these water-testing moments could turn into watershed events.

But what, if any, difference will the participation of Palin or Bachmann make in the campaign? Does the presence of women in a field of candidates have any effect on the issues discussed, on the tone of debate, on the behavior of the male candidates?

Yes, says former U.S. Rep. Connie Morella (R–MD).

"Whenever women try and succeed in elective office, it sends a message to all women that there is opportunity for them and their children," Morella says. When they are engaged in the political process, "women bring a new perspective and values."

And, Morella adds, "so far, civility."

'Catnip To The Media'

A Bachmann or Palin candidacy will have an immediate effect on the already-declared Republican men who hope to challenge President Obama in 2012, says Matthew Dallek, who teaches history and politics at the University of California's Washington Center.

First, their campaigns would attract and absorb considerable media attention, Dallek says. Spotlights would turn away from the more traditional male Republican candidates, such as Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich, and would shine on "a pair of ultra-conservative women who are both exciting on the stump — to their respective constituencies — and catnip to the media and pundits."

Second, Dallek says, Bachmann and Palin "have both raised millions for a potential presidential campaign, and even if they win few votes on Election Day, their campaign war chests will likely be spent attacking Romney as too squishy, and they will take some of the money and activists at the grass roots that otherwise might have gone to and rallied behind a Romney or Pawlenty or [Jon] Huntsman."

Furthermore, Dallek doesn't believe that Palin and Bachmann will automatically attract legions of female voters. He points to the presidential runs of Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton, neither of whom drew overwhelming female support. But, Dallek adds, a Bachmann or Palin campaign "will generate significant enthusiasm from Tea Party women activists and will benefit from some measure of identity politics on the right."

Hillary Clinton was Barack Obama's strongest Democratic challenger for president in 2008, then later went on to become his secretary of state.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images
Getty Images
Hillary Clinton was Barack Obama's strongest Democratic challenger for president in 2008, then later went on to become his secretary of state.

Madam President

But what difference does it make to the body politic to have female presidential candidates making the rounds through the Tuesday night town hall meetings, Saturday afternoon fish fries and Sunday morning talk shows? Do female presidential wannabes change the way voters look at the election?

During the 2008 campaign, candidate Hillary Clinton was asked by NPR: How do you navigate the different expectations that people have of a woman leader? "That is such a great question," she said, "because that's what I'm doing. And I'm doing it out here in public, kind of on a high wire, trying to strike the right balance. I can only be myself. You know, I am a serious person, and I think these are serious times and deserve serious leadership. But I'm also — I hate to admit it — a human being, with all of the feelings and experiences and real hopes and dreams for myself and my family and my country that I think every one of us have."

Nichola D. Gutgold, author of Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton 'Won' in 2008, says, "It is tremendously important to have women in every presidential election."

If for no other reason, Gutgold says, "there is evidence that the more women who run for president the less that gender matters — because women will not be seen as novelty candidates."

As research for a future book, Gutgold — who teaches communications at Pennsylvania State University's Lehigh Valley campus — and her co-authors recently conducted a survey of women ages 18 to 25 asking them if the presidential bid of Hillary Clinton and the vice presidential bid of Sarah Palin made them believe that a woman would be president in their lifetimes.

In the 518 surveys returned so far, Gutgold says, 291 women said Hillary Clinton's bid encouraged them to believe that they would live to see a woman be president. Some 120 respondents were encouraged by Palin's vice-presidential bid, 57 respondents were not encouraged by either woman, and 50 were encouraged by both women's efforts.

Respondents' comments about Clinton's influence included: "She was one of the first women who looked like she could win," and, "She made me believe that a woman will be a strong candidate."

As for Palin, one student wrote: "The media focused too much on her personal life and not enough on her politics." Another respondent said Palin made her a believer in a female president in her lifetime because, "As soon as Obama won, many people were already campaigning for Palin in 2012."

But Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, says that even with the potential candidacies of Palin and Bachmann, and even given Hillary Clinton's 2008 bid, "there are still too few female presidential candidates for scholars and analysts to begin to assess the manner in which women candidates reshape presidential elections.

"The extent to which they energize voters or affect the gender gap in vote choice, for example, are important questions. But there are still simply too few cases from which we can generalize," Lawless says.

Coaching Against Condescension

The same statistical conundrum comes into play when trying to determine the effect female candidates have on male candidates in a presidential race. In order to determine the upshot of women on presidential campaigns, political scientists need a larger sampling of women who have participated in presidential campaigns.

Joan Hoff, a political historian at Montana State University, says that because only two women have participated in vice presidential debates — Geraldine Ferraro versus George H. W. Bush in 1984 and Sarah Palin versus Joe Biden in 2008 — it is difficult to generalize about what impact a female candidate has on debates. "Both men apparently had to be coached not to be condescending," Hoff says, "and Biden succeeded better than Bush in this regard."

Using Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign as an example, Hoff says, it is clear that any woman running for president on a major national party ticket "must appear as macho, if not more so, on foreign policy than the men who want their party's nomination — for fear of appearing weak in the defense of the nation. In Clinton's case she was already a hawk when her husband was president and continues to be one as Secretary of State."

In the end, "American women usually don't succeed in politics — or other professions — unless they act like men," Hoff says. "And so, aside from the condescension issue, they don't usually have a distinctly female impact on the tone or issues discussed in political debates."

The standard for running for national office, she says, "remains distinctly male."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.