Rural Voters Remain Reluctant to Vote for Female Candidates

Research finds voters in these heavily Republican areas are less likely to support obscure office-seekers with feminine-sounding names.
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Voters cast their ballots at voting booths in New York City, New York.

So you're marking your mid-term election ballot, and you get all the way down to candidates for the state legislature. The names—Ted Smith and Mary Watson—mean nothing to you. How do you decide?

Many voters will simply follow their political party preference; others will vote for or against the incumbent, depending upon how satisfied they are with the state of the state. But according to recent research, others will focus on the only other piece of identifying information they have at their disposal: the candidates' first names, which generally reveal their gender.

And in rural districts—which, in the Trump era, means heavily Republican areas—a significant number of them will reflexively choose the man.

"Candidates with names that are predominantly given to girls rather than boys capture a smaller share of the vote than do otherwise similar candidates with more ambiguous or masculine-typed names," Iowa State University political scientist Robert Urbatsch writes in the October issue of the journal Electoral Studies. "This result comports with intuitions that rural districts are likely to be more apprehensive about feminine leaders."

Urbatsch analyzed the electoral success of major-party, general-election candidates to state legislatures from 2003 to 2010. He focused on the first name of each candidate, and the degree to which it is linked with femininity.

That was determined using data from the Social Security Administration, which records all names parents gave their newborn children. For instance, he found 99.7 percent of babies named Jennifer were females, which means the name Jennifer received a "femaleness" score of 99.7. The name Kim, which is a bit more gender-neutral, received a score of 83.9.

After taking into account how well a candidate's party did overall in a given election, he found a distinct pattern: "Candidates with names that are predominantly given to girls rather than boys capture a smaller share of the vote than do otherwise similar candidates with more ambiguous or masculine-sounding names."

"This result holds for both men and women," he adds, "suggesting that voters, in this context, tend to discriminate against those sending relatively female-seeming signals."

This effect, he adds, is not trivial. "The estimated difference in vote share between a candidate with a name given only to females in the Social Security Administration data and one given only to males is approximately one and one-half percentage points," he reports.

Importantly, this tendency varies widely depending on whether a given district is in a rural or urban area. The average "urbanized, high population-density district shows only very slight effects of the femaleness of candidates' names," he writes. But in a typical rural district, it "represents a substantive swing of some 2.5 percentage points of the vote."

The results help explain why the Democrats have so many more women running for office this year than Republicans. They also suggest Democrats who are wary of running another female candidate for president in 2020 may have a point—at least if they are hoping to attract rural voters who went for Donald Trump in 2016.

In such high-profile races, of course, voters have a lot more information on the candidates, so gender may not play as pivotal a role. But it seems clear that a significant percentage of the electorate remains uncomfortable with placing women in leadership positions—and these voters overwhelmingly live in less-populated, Republican-leaning areas.