Knowing that I would be doing my senior work during an election year, I felt obligated to examine U.S. national elections; obligated and of course, incredibly enthused about the opportunity to examine this topic with immediacy and real-time observation. I set about constructing a personal relevance contained within this area, and quickly saw the chance to combine a few of my passions in the political science field. The roles and experiences of women in the American government have always interested me, and as a prospective journalism student back in the day, the media’s function in democracy poses interesting questions for me. On top of this, I’ve tended to take a more sociological approach to most of my political science research.
All of this combined to form the idea of studying female candidates in this election cycle. I initially wanted to ask the questions: how are women campaigning? How does this vary from the way men are campaigning? At bottom, this is still my central inquiry, but its been developed both by the role that the media outlets play in framing campaign issues and by some of the unique factors that have already shaped the discourse and direction of the 2012 elections.
In the early stages of my research, I came across the gender issue ownership theory, suggested by Paul Herrnson, which states that female political candidates experience greater electoral success if they target female voters and craft their campaign strategies around “women’s issues” and “compassion issues”: the family, traditional values, education, welfare. This immediately caught my eye. Are female politicians so constrained? Are women who are current campaigning for public office aware of these tactics and consciously employing them?
Finally, making it an even more interesting time to study female politicians, the current hot button social controversy has been the rights of women, regarding in particular the access to health services. How are female candidates responding to this “war on women?” Are there ways in which the media’s coverage of this supposed war have forced the hand of female politicians when it comes to crafting campaign messages?
These facets come together in my research proposal. Using an array of current congressional campaigns as case studies, I hope to examine the messages of various candidates when it comes to “women’s issues.” Then taking into account district demographics, party identification, and historical voting patterns in the region, I will test the candidate’s electoral success, specifically how their support breaks down between male and female voters, as a way to perhaps isolate the effect that gender and gendered responses to social debate have on congressional campaigns and campaign efficacy.