Voter Sex, Party, and Gender-Salient Issues: Attitudes about Sexual Harassment and Brett Kavanaugh in the 2018 Elections

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17RG9JSFaNCns7/input 939502APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20939502American Politics ResearchHansen and Dolan
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(5) 532 –542
Voter Sex, Party, and
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Gender-Salient Issues: Attitudes
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20939502
about Sexual Harassment and Brett
Kavanaugh in the 2018 Elections
Michael A. Hansen1 and Kathleen Dolan2
Since the election of President Trump and the dawning of the #MeToo movement, gender-salient issues have had a primary
place in recent American politics. This was particularly evident in 2018 in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s
confirmation hearings amid accusations that he has sexually assaulted a classmate. Previous research suggests that women
should be more concerned about issues like sexual harassment and mobilized to participate in elections in which these issues
are prominent. Yet, American politics has become more polarized in the last 25 years, requiring us to re-examine the impact
of gender-salient issues on women’s electoral behavior. Employing data from a 2018 ANES pilot study, we examine the
relative impact of gender and party on attitudes toward sexual harassment, Brett Kavanaugh, and participation in the 2018
elections. We find that, while gender plays some role in 2018, partisanship is still the dominant influence in these elections.
gender-salient issues, public opinion, sexual harassment, #MeToo
As the result of a confluence of forces, attention to gender-
distinguish position on attitudes about appropriate attention to
salient issues has achieved a prominent place in contempo-
sexual harassment issues or Brett Kavanaugh, but instead that
rary political life in the United States. The #MeToo movement
partisanship is the most important influence, with Democratic
brought attention to the widespread sexual harassment and
and Republican women taking different positions on these
assault of women in a range of industries. At the same time,
issues, even when we account for individual experiences of
the presidential election of 2016 and the election of Donald
sexual harassment. This project finds evidence that partisan-
Trump focused attention on the treatment of women in our
ship continues to trump sex as an influence on political issues,
society. This attention continued with President Trump’s
even on issues where we would expect sex and gender to have
nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, himself accused of sexual
a significant impact.
assault, to the Supreme Court. The cumulative impact of
these events has been to highlight gendered issues in election
Gender-Salient Issues in 2018
campaigns in a way that is unique in recent times. Here we
examine the degree to which these gender-salient issues had
The election of 2018 was one in which there was significant
an impact on the 2018 elections by observing the relationship
attention to gender-salient issues in the campaign. Attention
between voter sex, attitudes about sexual harassment and
to these issues began in earnest in the 2016 presidential elec-
Brett Kavanaugh, and participation in the elections.
tion, as Donald Trump’s derogatory language, past treatment
Given the particular importance of these issues of sexual
of women, and behavior toward Hillary Clinton in the
harassment and assault to women, we might expect women
debates drew attention. In October of 2016, the airing of the
will be more supportive of the efforts to highlight sexual
Access Hollywood tape in which Trump described assaulting
harassment and will be less likely to support the nomination
of Brett Kavanaugh. We also consider the impact of being
1University of Wisconsin - Parkside, Kenosha, WI, USA
sexually harassed on women’s positions on these issues and
2University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, USA
on willingness to participate in the elections. Instead of find-
ing evidence for differences between women and men in
Corresponding Author:
Kathleen Dolan, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin
these attitudes, we demonstrate that the continued intertwin-
- Milwaukee, Bolton Hall Room 674, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, 53211,
ing of issue position and partisanship in American politics
extends to these gendered issues. We find that sex does not

Hansen and Dolan
women reinvigorated attention to issues of sexual harassment
were less visible. (Dolan, 1998, 2004; Hansen, 1997; Paolino,
and assault. Trump’s election was met by waves of protest
1995; Sapiro & Conover, 1997).
from women and took the form of a nation-wide movement of
This literature suggests that women’s attitudes and behav-
protest marches and a historic number of women candidates
iors can be shaped by gender-salient issues, but these issues
for office in 2018. In October of 2017, the publication of
may not be present in all election campaigns. The conditions
charges of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood
in the election of 2018 were similar to those of 1992. Given
producer Harvey Weinstein kicked off the #MeToo move-
the seriousness of the issues raised in the accusations against
ment and its attention to decades of mistreatment of women.
Kavanaugh, the attention to sexual harassment in general, the
Within a few months, several prominent men from a wide
continuing concerns about President Trump’s treatment of
range of industries had been accused of sexual harassment
women, and the historically large number of women candi-
and assault, opening the floodgates to the scope and depth of
dates campaigning, the 2018 election should be a particularly
the problem.
good opportunity for us to examine whether gender-salient
It was in this charged environment, in July 2018, that
issues continue to influence the attitudes and behaviors of
President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the
American women.
U.S. Supreme Court. His nomination proceeded in the typi-
cal fashion until September, when news broke of sexual
The Complexity of Gender-Salient
assault accusations leveled against Kavanaugh by Christine
Issues as an Influence on Women
Blasey Ford. Shortly after, two other women came forward
to accuse Kavanaugh of inappropriate sexual behavior. These
accusations culminated in dramatic nationally televised hear-
Assuming that women’s attitudes and behaviors in the 2018
ings at which Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh testified about an
election will be moved by issues around sexual harassment
alleged incident in 1982. Issues of sexual harassment, assault,
stems from literature that demonstrates women taking con-
and the #MeToo movement received significant coverage
sistently different positions from men on a range of policy
until Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate in October,
issues, particularly those considered to be more central to
just a month before the midterm elections of 2018.
women’s lives, such as family leave, domestic violence, and
Public opinion polling at the time clearly supported the
access to contraception (Cassese & Barnes, 2018; Cassese
notion that these gender-salient issues were more important
et al., 2015; Lizotte, 2015, Strolovitch, 1998; Swers, 2002).
to women than men. Women are, of course, more likely to
These patterns of gender difference extend to attitudes
experience sexual harassment and assault than are men, mak-
toward sexual harassment and sexual violence. Numerous
ing the issues more salient to their lives (Jackson & Newman,
studies find that women are less tolerant of sexual harass-
2004; Uggen & Blackstone, 2004; U.S. Equal Employment
ment and define a wider range of behaviors as harassment
Opportunity Commission, 2018). In the run-up to the mid-
than men, positions motivated, in part, by experience and by
term elections, women were more likely than men to say that
individual women’s sense of gender identity (Murrell &
sexual harassment was a major problem in society, 70 percent
Dietz-Uhler, 1993; Rotundo et al., 2001; Russell & Trigg,
to 53 percent, and more likely than men to believe Blasey
2004). Given the persistent gender gap in attitudes toward
Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh, 52 percent to
sexual harassment, it would seem reasonable to expect
37 percent. Women were also more likely than men to dis-
women in the 2018 elections to be less supportive of Brett
agree with the idea that the #MeToo movement had gone too
Kavanaugh and likely to be motivated to participate in the
far, 36 percent to 51 percent, (Brenan, 2019; Montanaro,
elections by their positions on him and on sexual harassment
in society more broadly.
Previous research on the impact of gender-salient issues has
At the same time, there is evidence that suggests attitudes
found that women are often moved by the gendered dynamics
around harassment are as complex as any other, indicating
of an election campaign. A recent modern example of this was
times when gender is less central than other influences on
the election of 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman.”
women’s attitudes and behaviors (Cassese & Holman, 2017.)
President George Bush’s vetoes of the Family and Medical
Attitudes about traditional gender roles and both benevolent
Leave Act, the Senate testimony by Anita Hill and Clarence
and hostile sexism can influence women’s...

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