This blog was originally published on Bustle, 5/7/15. See it here.
In 2008, I was a big HRC supporter, to the chagrin of many of my “progressive” friends who were voting for Obama. Back then, my friends, like many other Democrats, were in love with Barack Obama and what he represented to them — change and hope. Clinton’s “experience” platform did little to move voters in my cohort of young, well-educated Northeastern liberals. Some of my friends and colleagues in Rutgers’ Women and Politics department knew better and understood that the gender dynamics of the campaign very much influenced Clinton’s decision to run on experience — we know from political research that, all else equal, women are judged as less experienced and qualified as candidates compared to men, and because of this Clinton really had no other choice but to campaign on experience.
Throughout the primary season, I often found myself having to defend my choice to support Clinton. I cycled through what were the most common justifications at the time — Clinton would be ready on day one, and Obama hadn’t proved himself yet, was the most common reason I cited, which also happened to be what Clinton herself was saying. But looking back, the real reason I was voting for Clinton was something I was ashamed and discouraged from admitting — I voted for Clinton because she was a woman.
The media made a theme out of the black candidate running against the woman candidate, even though the multiplicity of each candidate’s identity (Obama is not simply black, he is a black man. Clinton is not simply a woman, but a white woman) was routinely ignored. Especially in my social network, the idea of voting for a woman candidate simply because she’s a woman was derided as short-sighted, even silly. But really, when it came down to it, Clinton’s gender is what truly distinguished my choice to vote for her over Obama, and it’s why I already know she will get my vote again in 2016. But this time I’m not ashamed to admit it, and here’s why.
Clinton’s gender is what truly distinguished my choice to vote for her over Obama, and it’s why I already know she will get my vote again in 2016.
Before I begin, I should say that I am a staunch Democrat and a proud liberal. I have made a career out of providing strategic advice to Democratic, pro-choice candidates. My partisanship and ideology are extremely meaningful to me, and I am passionate about electing leaders who I believe will advocate for social justice. I believe in a social safety net, I believe that health care is a human right that should be provided for all, and I believe that the government should provide a roadmap to citizenship for immigrants who are here illegally. So if Hillary Clinton were running under the Republican ticket, I would never vote for her. Like many other Americans, party trumps almost every other consideration for me when it comes to making a voting decision. However, when the choice is among Democrats in a presidential election, the woman candidate will get my vote.
Many Americans might lambast the idea of voting for a candidate based on descriptive characteristics like gender. We should vote for candidates based on their policy positions, we should extensively research each candidate, pay attention to the media, listen to what they candidates are saying, and then make a choice based on the information we’ve collected over the course of the campaign… right? The model of the rational “calculator,” who collects and digests a wealth of information about each candidate before making a well-informed, thoughtful choice may be the ideal model of decision-making in a democracy, but it is far from reality.
A wealth of political science research reveals that not only is the “rational calculator” model of a voter unrealistic, but that it doesn’t necessarily lead to a better decision than using “cues” or heuristics to make decisions. Research by political scientists Richard Lau and David Redlawsk has revealed that voters who base their decisions on one or more of the common cues voters use (party affiliation, endorsements, polls/viability, and candidate appearance) actually end up making the same decision they would make if they were fully informed, and had performed the “rational calculator” model of decision-making.
So based on the fact that most Americans do not base their decisions on rational, informed calculations but rather rely on cues, voting for Clinton because she’s a woman seems to be a good a reason to vote for a candidate as any. Who can forget the Bush voters in 2004 who would tell reporters that they were voting for him “because he just seems like a guy I could throw back a beer with?”
The reason why voters rely on cues, however, is not because they’re dumb or lazy, it’s because cues are an efficient way to process information and make good decisions. For example, if you know a candidate is a Democrat, the party “cue” can help voters infer much more about the candidate — more than likely, that candidate supports government assistance for low-income citizens, is pro-choice, and supports gay marriage, among several other policy positions. Cues don’t work 100 percent of the time — for example, there are a small minority of Democrats who are anti-choice — but they work often enough that voters can use them to make good decisions, as though they were well-informed.