Written with Josh Tybur
All the single ladies, now put your hands up...for Obama. It is an incredible voting statistic from the 2012 presidential election. The exit polls revealed that 55 percent of women voted for Obama. With women making up 53 percent of the U.S. electorate, one could argue that the female vote decided the outcome of the 2012 US presidential election.
Following Beyonce’s advice, 67 percent of unmarried women decided to vote for Obama, whereas Romney received a meager 31 percent among this group of voters—a whopping 36 percent difference. Interestingly, this trend was slightly reversed among married women, with 53 percent preferring Romney over Obama.
Both parties courted the female vote in 2012, with the Republican Party arguing that 92 percent of U.S. jobs lost during Obama’s tenure were jobs held by women, and the Democratic party highlighting Republican proposals to limit insurance coverage for hormonal contraception and to limit women’s access to abortion. The Democratic Party’s message appears to have resonated more strongly with women, but it appears to have been more appealing to single women than to married women.
A new study suggests another novel factor that might relate to a woman’s political preferences: where she is in her ovulatory cycle.
The study, led by Kristina Durante from the University of Texas at San Antonio—soon to be published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science—suggests that women’s preferences for Obama versus Romney fluctuate across the menstrual cycle, where estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones wax and wane.1 The study caused a bit of an uproar in the media when the results first came out, leading to a retraction of the story from the CNN journalist for reasons unclear to us. Perhaps because CNN feared it would dominate the elections?
In an Internet study, these scientists surveyed over 500 women who reported to be normally cycling (no hormonal contraceptives, like the pill or Depo-Provera shot). These women indicated if they were “single” or in a “committed” relationship (married, cohabitation). They then reported the last day of their menstruation and their average cycle length. Based on this information, the researchers divided the sample into either a “high fertility” group (days 7-14—where conception is most likely in the event of intercourse, and where estrogen levels peak) or the “low fertility group” (days 17-25, where conception is unlikely in the event of intercourse. Finally, the women answered various questions about social political issues (e.g., attitudes toward abortion and marijuana) and economic political issues (e.g., progressive taxation, privatization of social security), and they reported who, out of Obama and Romney, they would vote for if they walked into a voting booth that day.
Single women reported more liberal political attitudes (both toward social policies and economic policies) relative to women in a committed relationship. Anticipating the outcome of the elections, President Obama was more strongly endorsed by single women (79 percent preferred Obama over Romney) than by women in a committed relationship (69 percent preferred Obama over Romney). Yet, these attitudes and preferences varied across where women were in their menstrual cycle, and they varied differently for single and non-single women.
For social political issues, single women in the fertile phase of their cycle reported more progressive attitudes than single women in the non-fertile phase of their cycle. This pattern was reversed for non-single women—those in the fertile phase of their cycle reported more conservative attitudes toward social political issues than those in the non-fertile phase of their cycle.
Did the fertility effect on candidate preferences mirror the effect on social attitudes? The strongest preference for Obama (87 percent) was found among single women who self-reported to be in the high fertile phase of the cycle (vs. 74 percent among single women in the non-fertile phase). In contrast, a stronger preference for Romney (40 percent) was found among committed women who reported to be in the fertile phase of their cycle (vs. 33 percent among married women in the non-fertile phase).
What is going on here? A large body of research has demonstrated that women’s mate preferences vary across the cycle, but it seems unlikely that the single women in their fertile phase wanted to bed Obama and have his children, and that this affected their voting preference. A more plausible explanation, offered by the researchers, is that women’s decisions to vote for Obama (Romney) and accept (or reject) social policies may reflect how such policies would affect their sexual strategies.
There is a growing literature showing that, at high fertility, women are more open to short term sexual relationships. If women’s psychology shifts to be more open to a short-term sexual strategy at high fertility, they may also be more averse to government policies that are perceived as hostile to this strategy (so, limiting access to contraception, or being publically demonized as a “slut” by Rush Limbaugh if you think that hormonal contraception should be covered by insurance, as Sandra Fluke was). In that sense, the Democratic framing of Republican’s “War on Women” may have been especially effective on single women who were in the fertile phase of their cycle.
Yet what about the women in a committed relationship? Why did they vote more conservative and held more conservative political values when in their fertile phase? Here, the researchers suggest that for women in committed relationships, high fertility might encourage attention from other men, and it might increase the probability of infidelity, which in turn impairs relationship stability and happiness. Thus, for committed women it might be in their strategic interest to endorse more traditional and conservative values in their most fertile phase.
An alternative explanation—and an admittedly more cynical one – is that a woman in committed relationships might endorse more conservative attitudes at high fertility to “trick” her partner into thinking that she would not stray. Further research is necessary to tease these—and other—possibilities apart.
Taken together, this research suggests that fluctuations in the sex hormones underlying the menstrual cycle can affect political attitudes and preferences for candidates.2
It fits with a growing body of research on the impact of fluctuating hormones like testosterone and oxytocin on social and political decision-making. Although it is an interesting finding, we cannot see it would add much practical value for political strategists and spin-doctors. If anything, this research shows that the group of women voters is not a monolith but a diverse population with diverse and sometimes opposing interests. It seems that the single ladies did put their hands up for Obama—as Beyonce sang—perhaps partially because for them a more liberal vote corresponds with their strategic (sexual) interests.
Winston Churchill highlighted the manner in which political attitudes can shift over the life course, “Show me a young conservative, and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” This new research suggests another way that our political attitudes and voting preferences might shift over a much shorter time frame.
1. Durante, K. M., Arsena, A. R., & Griskevicius, V. (2012). The fluctuating female vote: Politics, religion, and the ovulatory cycle. Psychological Science (in press). Available on website: http://business.utsa.edu/faculty/kdurante/files/Durante_PresidentialElection_Hormones.pdf
2. It has been brought to my attention by several readers of my blog that these research findings could not (yet) be replicated by other research groups. Isabell Scott and Nicholas Pound from Brunel University presented a poster at the EHBEA 2014 conference in Bristol with a failure to replicate (although they used somewaht different measures of political ideology). So the last word has not yet been written on whether the fluctuating female vote is a real phenomenon.