Playing the Women’s Card: How Women Respond to Female Candidates’ Descriptive Versus Substantive Representation

Date01 May 2019
Published date01 May 2019
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2019, Vol. 47(3) 549 –581
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X18776622
Playing the Women’s
Card: How Women
Respond to Female
Candidates’ Descriptive
Versus Substantive
Danielle Joesten Martin1
When presented the choice between a male and female candidate, it is
commonly assumed that women prefer a female candidate. But as more
policy and ideologically diverse women run for office, this assumption
may not hold true. Using an experimental design embedded in a nationally
representative survey, I test how voters respond to female candidates
with ideologies and abortion positions similar and contrary to their own
preferences. I find that women, generally, prefer a female candidate, but
support for a female candidate among women decreases significantly when
she has a contrary ideology or policy position. Whether women prefer
descriptive or substantive representation also is conditioned on individual-
level characteristics. This study advances our understanding of voters’
responses to female candidates’ varying ideological and issue positions,
which is increasingly important as more women run for office. Although
women are more likely than men to give female candidates the benefit of the
doubt, not just any female candidate will do—she needs to appeal to women
on issue and ideological grounds too.
1California State University, Sacramento, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Danielle Joesten Martin, California State University, Sacramento, 6000 J Street, TAH 3104,
Sacramento, CA 95819-6089, USA.
776622APRXXX10.1177/1532673X18776622American Politics ResearchMartin
550 American Politics Research 47(3)
descriptive representation, women and politics, issue voting
Disparaging Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump
declared, “The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card,” backhand-
edly assuming that running as a woman benefits her as a candidate. In
response, Clinton’s campaign began selling woman cards, calling attention to
Clinton’s advocacy of women’s issues. Throughout the 2016 presidential
campaign, Clinton highlighted her experiences as a woman in the workplace
and politics, and focused on issues particularly relevant to women, including
paid family leave, health care, and equal pay. Indeed, headlines claimed,
“Hillary Clinton 2016 strategy revealed: I’m a woman, vote for me” (Schow,
2015), which beg the following question: Is it a winning strategy and are
women more likely to vote for female candidates? Political pundits presumed
female voters would inevitably support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presiden-
tial election (Walsh, 2015), and when polls revealed that women did not uni-
formly support Clinton, much ink was spilled asking why women did not
support a female candidate for president.1 By asking why women would not
support a female candidate, researchers, the media, and political pundits per-
petuate the common assumption that women prefer a female candidate. Yet,
this assumption is that all women voters employ a similar decision calculus
in making their vote choice, and that all women candidates would be similar
representatives. As Campbell and Heath (2017) conclude,
Women do not react in a homogeneous way to the sex of the candidate, and the
assumption that women are more likely to vote for women candidates is
therefore too simplistic and assumes a uniformity of motivations for doing so
that are not present in practice. (p. 228)
Moreover, not all women candidates are homogeneous in experience, quality,
issue positions, or ideology, and there may be conflict for voters prioritizing
between descriptive and substantive representation. What if the female candi-
date has an opposing ideology or issue position, making the female candidate
a good choice for a woman in terms of descriptive representation but a poor
choice in terms of substantive representation? Will women give the female
candidate the benefit of the doubt and support her for non-policy reasons?
Furthermore, many voters assume female candidates hold certain stereotypi-
cal issue positions and generally are more liberal and likely to be a Democrat
(Herrnson, Lay, & Stokes, 2003; Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993; Koch, 2002;
McDermott, 1997, 1998). But if a woman candidate holds a non-stereotypical
Martin 551
policy position or ideology—as increasingly will be the case as more women
run for office—sex no longer serves as a useful cue for voters. If sex is an inac-
curate heuristic to determine a candidate’s policy preferences, will female vot-
ers nevertheless vote for a descriptive representative?
Thus, my research question is as follows:
Research Question 1: When—if ever—will descriptive representation be
more compelling than substantive representation among women?
In low-information environments, I expect women support female candi-
dates at a higher rate than men—an expectation consistent with theories of
descriptive representation. When presented with a female candidate with
policy positions or ideologies contrary to their own, I hypothesize that wom-
en’s support for the female candidate will decrease but will remain higher
than support among men, indicating that women weigh both descriptive and
substantive representation. Furthermore, I show that women’s responses to a
female with contrary ideology and issue positions vary based on individual-
level characteristics. I use a nationally representative survey experiment dur-
ing the 2014 congressional elections to test these expectations. The
experimental design presents participants with a female candidate whose
position on abortion and ideology vary based on participants’ reported abor-
tion opinion, ideology, and to which treatment group participants are random-
ized. I find that relative to men, women are more likely to discount contrary
ideology and issue positions by expressing support for a female candidate.
However, although women’s support for a female candidate is higher com-
pared with men, women’s support for a female candidate with contrary policy
preferences is lower than support for a female candidate with similar policy
preferences. These results imply that although women often give female can-
didates the benefit of the doubt with support, female candidates may not auto-
matically win women’s vote.
Descriptive Representation and Gender Affinity
There are multiple reasons to expect women prefer a female candidate,
including gender identity voting, women’s issues representation, and general
preference for descriptive representation. First, the alignment of a voter’s and
a candidate’s sex influences vote choice among women, perhaps because
gender identity creates a sense of group solidarity among women (Plutzer &
Zipp, 1996). Second, certain political issues, such as abortion, education,
health care, and welfare, frequently are referred to as “women’s issues,” and
voters assume women are more likely—and best suited—to address these

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