Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Looking for Sex in All the Wrong Places: Press Coverage and the Electoral Fortunes of Gubernatorial Candidates

Linda L. Fowlera1 and Jennifer L. Lawlessa2

a1 Dartmouth College. E-mail: linda.fowler@dartmouth.edu

a2 Women and Politics Institute, American University. E-mail: jennifer.lawless@american.edu

Abstract

Although female candidates have achieved parity on some dimensions, political institutions remain deeply gendered in how they structure the parameters of electoral competition. We rely on a new data set of gubernatorial races from the 1990s to address the theoretical and empirical challenges created by the interaction of gender, media content, and electoral institutions. Based on an analysis of 1,365 newspaper articles for 27 contests in which a woman held a major party nomination, we uncover evidence of continuing bias in media coverage. Yet significant coefficients on candidate sex tell only part of the story. Gendered contextual factors linked to the contest and state in which candidates compete, as well as the newspapers that cover their races, also affect women's experiences on the campaign trail. The major finding, however, is the presence of a powerful baseline effect favoring male candidates that is deeply embedded in U.S. politics. All else equal, women gubernatorial candidates suffer a substantial vote deficit that results from non-observable influences. The results support the emerging consensus among feminist theorists that greater focus on the political context is likely to produce bigger scholarly payoffs than is continued attention to observable differences between male and female candidates.

Linda L. Fowler is Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, where she holds the Frank J. Reagan Chair in Policy Studies (linda.fowler@dartmouth.edu)

Jennifer L. Lawless is Associate Professor of Government at American University, where she is Director of the Women and Politics Institute (jennifer.lawless@american.edu)

Footnotes

We thank Dartmouth College students Jacqueline Rose and James Phadenhauer, who coded the newspaper content data for this project. And we appreciate the constructive comments on earlier drafts by Richard Fox, Jennifer Merolla, Dean Lacy, members of the American politics seminar at Dartmouth College, as well as anonymous reviewers.

Our title was sparked by Johnny Lee's country and western song, “Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places.”

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