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Gordon Hodson Ph.D.

Sexism in the 2016 US Presidential Election

Did Americans “pillory Hillary” for being a woman?

There has been considerable speculation about “What Happened” in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Polls prior to the election had indicated that Hillary Clinton was the favourite (and indeed, she won the overall popular vote). But she lost the election given the peculiarities of the electoral college system.

There is clear concern about Russian interference, as pursued by Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation, and the conclusions about interference reached by the US intelligence agencies.

But what about sexism? After all, Hillary Clinton, if elected, would have been the first female president in U.S. history. Clinton herself speculated that sexism might have played a role, but this claim did not hold much traction with the public, and Trump accused her of playing the so-called “women’s card” (i.e., using claims of sexism to her advantage).

Of course, it can be difficult to tell what really happened, and most phenomena have multiple causes. But our lab recently published a paper that can provide one of the best available estimates of the role of sexism. We used a large, nationally representative dataset that is freely available to researchers (the American National Election Survey, or ANES). The paper (Rothwell, Hodson, & Prusaczyk, 2019) is freely available for a limited time (see References at the end of this article), thanks the publisher, so I will not reiterate everything in this piece; you can read the paper for the finer details. Instead, I will summarize the key findings below:

  • political ideology was a strong predictor of voting for Trump (vs. Clinton), meaning that right-leaning people were more likely to vote for Trump. (this is of very little surprise)
  • even after statistically controlling for the effect of political ideology, however, sexism significantly predicted voting for Trump (vs. Clinton). That is, the more sexist the voter, the more likely that person voted for Trump

The next two findings are a bit nuanced if you’re not used to statistics, but they are very revealing and worth exploring:

  • those on the political right (vs. left) scored significantly higher in sexism, but…
  • sexism played a stronger role in voting for Trump (vs. Clinton) on the political left than right

To put this another way, although those on the right (vs. left) scored higher in sexism, the political right voted for Trump in large part because doing so was consistent with their political ideology (i.e., conservatives voting for the Republican candidate). Those on the left, however, in voting for Trump over Clinton, were “breaking rank” with their side or tribe, and those who did so were drawing on their sexism (antipathy toward women).

Interestingly, these effects did not differ between male and female participants. Ideology and sexism were strong predictors of vote choice, but group membership based on sex was not. (see my previous post on how sex does not necessarily play a role in abortion attitudes either)

These data are consistent with the notion that sexism played a role in the 2016 election. Moreover, sexism particularly played a role in the voting behaviour among those on the left who turned their backs on Hillary.

So you ask, why “pillory Hillary”? The answer, in part, is rooted in belief that women are inferior to men, particularly among left-leaning men and women who voted for Trump.

References

Rothwell, V., Hodson, G., & Prusaczyk, E. (2019). Why pillory Hillary? Testing the endemic sexism hypothesis regarding the 2016 U.S. election. Personality and Individual Differences, 138, 106-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.09.034

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About the Author

Gordon Hodson, Ph.D. is a professor at Brock University.