Women in the 2012 Elections

by Megan Moeller

The 2012 elections will be noteworthy for women in elected office. The number of women in the Senate is currently at a historic high of 17. The 2012 elections will also see a historic high of female Senate incumbents up for re-election — one Republican and six Democrats. Five other women — four Democrats and one Republican — are the presumed nominees in Senate races, meaning 12 women could be vying for Senate seats next year. The 113th Congress would have the greatest number of female Senators ever if at least eight of them win.

But since many of the candidates are Democratic, a losing year for Democrats could mean a losing year for women in the Senate. If just one female incumbent loses a seat with no new women winning, the number of women in the Senate would decrease for the first time in 34 years. Such a blow would come on the heels of 2010, when the number of women in the House decreased for the first time in 30 years. Whether we see a new ‘Year of the Woman’ or the continuation of a losing trend for women, the 2012 elections will likely prove notable for female representation in Congress.

Women will also be crucial in the 2012 elections as voters, as they hold great weight in determining electoral fortunes. The female vote was pivotal to Barack Obama’s success in 2008: Men’s votes were split between John McCain and Obama while Obama earned 56% of the female vote. Additionally, women turned out at a rate of 65.7% compared to the 61.5% rate of their male counterparts, according to the Pew Research Center. Female voters are historically important to a Democratic victory, but in 2010 less than half of them voted for Democrats — possibly cause for concern for Obama and Democrats in 2012.

Of likely voters in the Republican primaries, most recent polls (through October 2011) reveal that women would most like to see Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential nominee, followed by Herman Cain. When asked for whom they would vote if the election were between Obama and Romney and held today, 50% of women surveyed in a Quinnipiac University poll said that they would vote for Obama and 38% for Romney.

Following the ‘Year of the Woman’ in 1992, women have made impressive gains in their share of congressional seats. But since then, pre-election polling numbers have consistently underestimated the eventual vote share for female candidates in Senate and gubernatorial races. Christopher Stout and Reuben Kline dubbed this phenomenon the “Richards Effect” (after former Texas governor Ann Richards) in their September 2011 article in Political Behavior. The “Richards Effect” is most pronounced in states that hold more culturally conservative views regarding gender roles.

In a recent AP poll, 83% of respondents indicated that the gender of the candidate in a presidential election would have no effect on whether they would vote for that candidate, and 9% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate if the candidate were a woman. Michele Bachmann, the only female candidate participating in presidential debates, has polling numbers averaging in the single digits for the last three months (through October 2011). It appears Republican women are no more likely to support her than are Republican men, as gender differences in preferring Bachmann as the Republican presidential nominee are within the margin of error. It looks doubtful the Richards effect or voters’ willingness to elect a woman will be enough to help her chances in the election.

Megan Moeller is a Ph.D. student. Her fields of study are American Politics and Methodology, with specific interests in legislative institutions, gender and politics, and public policy. She was recently awarded the competitive Janet Box-Steffensmeier scholarship for women in the social sciences to attend the ICPSR summer program in quantitative research methods. Megan received a B.A. in political sci- ence from the University of Michigan.