What Do Pennsylvania Voters Think about Gender and Women’s Representation?

What We Learned from 2016 and 2018 Exit Polls


  • Sarah Niebler
  • A. Lanethea Mathews-Schultz




Despite ongoing interest in the role of gender in American elections, highlighted most recently by Hillary Clinton’s historic bid for the presidency in 2016 and the 2018 “Year of the Woman” elections, recent studies have shown that gender alone is not enough to explain voter behavior. This is especially true in an increasingly ideologically polarized landscape in which party and ideology retain significant explanatory power regarding electoral outcomes. The saliency of gender identity and gender issues may also vary across time and context. Moreover, voters may not have full information about the underrepresentation of women or of the consequences of gender imbalances in elective institutions, raising uncertainty about whether women’s representation in politics matters to voters. In this article, using data from a unique exit poll, we examine the extent to which knowledge about women’s representation and perceptions about gender and women’s issues mattered to Pennsylvanians’ vote choice in the 2016 and 2018 elections. We find that neither gender nor party alone can explain men’s and women’s political behavior, but rather that gender and party interact in complex ways. Although party continues to be the best predictor of vote choice, gender matters to how voters understand and explain women’s underrepresentation in politics—a finding that has important implications for furthering gender equality in politics in the future.