2016 Presidential Election

Here’s how female candidates can sway fathers’ votes — if their first child is a daughter

Nov 3 '18
Hillary Clinton celebrates on stage after accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention on July 28, 2016. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

In the 2018 midterm election campaign, many female gubernatorial candidates have argued that their campaigns would be good for young women and girls in their states. In Idaho, for example, where Paulette Jordan and Kristin Collum are running for governor and lieutenant governor respectively, Collum declared, “Whether or not I win . . . I’ve given [young women] a role model. They can do this, too, and they should not let anything stop them.”

Such statements echo Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s message during the 2016 campaign. Clinton frequently reminded voters that her election would mean that “a father can tell his daughter: Yes, you can be anything you want to be. Even president of the United States.”

Are such claims just campaign rhetoric? Or might they influence the willingness of parents — and particularly fathers, the group that Clinton targeted in her appeals — to support female candidates?

Our research, newly published at Political Behavior, suggests that some voters — in particular, fathers whose first child is a girl — are indeed influenced by such claims. During the 2016 election, men whose first child was a girl were more likely than men whose first child was a boy to vote for Clinton or to support a fictional female congressional candidate delivering a similar pitch.

How we did our research

As we wrote here recently, becoming a father of a first daughter leads men to more strongly support policies that promote gender equality. Simply being the father of a daughter doesn’t do it; any daughter after the first has much less effect on men’s attitudes toward gender equity policies. Mothers aren’t affected in the same way, as they’ve already dealt with gender issues before becoming parents.

We suspected that these same fathers might be more likely to strongly support female candidates for political office — especially if these candidates highlight the benefits of their candidacies for young women and girls.

To test this possibility, we designed an original survey of 382 American fathers and 514 American mothers embedded in the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), which was administered both before and after the 2016 election. In the survey, we asked each respondent about the gender and birth order of each of their children; whether they voted for Clinton in 2016; and for information about parents’ partisanship, ideology, education, age, religiosity, income employment status, marital status, evaluations of the economy, racial attitudes and gender attitudes, to control for other factors that influenced support for Clinton.

Controlling for the factors listed above, we find that having a first daughter increases the probability of support for Clinton by 10 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election when compared to fathers of first sons. Mothers’ voting patterns remained the same, no matter the sex of their first child. What’s more, having a first daughter has similar effects among Democratic and Republican fathers, although the message was more appealing among Democrats.

We followed up with a survey experiment in which we randomly assigned our sample of mothers and fathers to three different groups. Each group was given a description of a fictional congressional candidate named “Molly Smith.” The first group read a description of Smith as running to become the first woman to represent Minnesota’s fictional 10th District. The second group was told that, and also that Smith “supports policies that would help increase the participation of women in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”

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In addition to reading the information given to the first two groups, the third group also read a quotation attributed to Smith, designed to mirror Clinton’s appeal to fathers of daughters: “This campaign is about making sure there are no ceilings, no limits on any of us, and to ensure that our daughters will forever know that there is no barrier to who they are and what they can be in the United States of America.”

First daughters influence how fathers respond to such appeals

Fathers of first daughters were more likely than fathers of first sons to support a female candidate, particularly when the candidate makes an explicit appeal to fathers of daughters. Fathers of first daughters in the second group, in which our female candidate only emphasized expanding opportunities for women in STEM fields, were nine percentage points more likely to support our fictional female candidate than were fathers of first sons. But fathers of first daughters in the third group, in which the candidate also emphasized the importance of her campaign for daughters, were a whopping 25 percentage points more likely to support the candidate than were fathers of first sons. Again, these appeals only affected fathers, not mothers.

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With more women running for Congress and in statewide elections in 2018 than ever before, often in competitive districts or states, female candidates may wish to highlight the symbolic importance of their election for the daughters of American fathers, tapping into an unexpected source of electoral support.

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Elizabeth Sharrow (@e_sharrow) is an assistant professor in the department of political science and the department of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Jill Greenlee (@greenlee_jill) is an associate professor in the department of politics and the women’s, gender and sexuality program at Brandeis University.

Jesse Rhodes (@JesseRhodesPS) is an associate professor and chair in the department of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Tatishe M. Nteta (@TatisheNteta) is an associate professor in the political science department and former family research scholar at the Center for Research on Families at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.