Magazine article The American Prospect

By Invitation Only

Magazine article The American Prospect

By Invitation Only

Article excerpt

It's never easy, amid the chaos and colliding variables of a campaign, to determine which factors really decide a close election. Politicians have their theories, though. As this year's primary season drew to a close, Hillary Clinton began blaming sexism for her campaign's troubles. But what of her Iraq War vote, infighting advisers, mouthy spouse, and decision to skip the caucus states? What of Obama? In an election this long and this tight, there are countless plausible explanations for Obama's narrow margin (a mere percentage point or two in the popular vote and a couple hundred delegates). In tallying sexism's electoral toll, Clinton's defeat is hardly the best example we can adduce.

We can do better. In January of 2008, Jennifer Lawless and Kathryn Pearson published an article in The Journal of Politics analyzing how female politicians fare in primary elections. Lawless and Pearson looked at every primary for the U.S. House of Representatives held between 1958 and 2004--a staggering 19,221 primary contests involving 33,094 candidates. Just 2,648 women competed in those primaries, however--a mere 8 percent of the total. This would make sense, hypothesized Lawless and Pearson, given the assumed bias of the electorate. If women are less likely to win primaries, they will also be less likely to enter them.

But the facts didn't fit the theory. "Contrary to our expectations," concluded Lawless and Pearson, "women's primary victory rates and vote margins are not significantly lower than those of their male counterparts." In other words, women win just as frequently as men. Indeed, in Democratic primaries since 1990, a woman won in 60 percent of districts where at least one competed.

The problem, it turns out, is less underperformance than underrepresentation. When women run, they perform at least as well as men. But they don't run nearly so often, and our country--with its weak party system and aversion to quotas--does nothing to specifically redress the resulting disparity. This might be why the percentage of women in Congress puts us in 68th place worldwide, nestled right between Bolivia and El Salvador, and only a couple of spots beneath famously feminist Tajikistan.

For some time, many assumed that this imbalance would right itself naturally and that the distortion just reflected the power of incumbency. What was needed was 4 not gender favoritism, they argued, but structural reforms that would lead to a more competitive political culture. Public financing was to pave the road, providing money to nontraditional candidates who might lack support from traditional party structures. …

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