GOP Women: “As Conservative as the Men are”

Politico has a story today (here) that addresses the new crop of women in the Republican party.  There are a couple points in the article that I find interesting.
First, even though we all know that there are far more men than women in Congress, it’s still astonishing that there are a total of 76 women currently serving in the House.*  Though I won’t go into it much here, there’s a sizable literature addressing why the number of women in Congress is so low.  The short version presented by Fox and Lawless (abstract here, article gated) is that while women tend to fare relatively well in elections when they run, highly qualified female candidates don’t get recruited nearly as aggressively as male counterparts, and thus are less likely to run in the first place.

The second point in the Politico article is that there’s been a pretty big gender gap in the parties.  This is certainly true among mass partisans: the Center for Women in American Politics at Rutgers has consistently found that a greater proportion of women than men prefer the Democratic presidential candidate, often by a gap in the 7-10 point range.  But this is also true among members of Congress, as the female Democrats outnumber female Republicans 52-24.  Fox & Lawless find that part of this advantage may lie in the number of women’s organizations, such as EMILY’s list, who have put a priority on recruiting women, even if the party doesn’t.

The third point in the article I found intriguing is the idea that the Republican women in the House are not like their more moderate counterparts in the Senate. Rather, as articulated by Kristi Noem, (R-SD) “I definitely think the women are as conservative as the men are.”

In 1985, Susan Welch published one of the first words on gender and ideology in Congress, finding that women did have more liberal voting patterns than men, but that the differences were diminishing somewhat (here, gated).  Is this the case in the 112th Congress?  Let’s find out.

There are a number of different ways that we could try to identify how conservative the various Republican members are, ranging from issue positions on websites to interest group ratings, but I happen to incredibly fond of ideal point estimation (weird, I know).  I’ve calculated a fresh batch of W-NOMINATE scores** from the 459 roll call votes that have taken place so far this session.

So, what do we see?  The Republican women look like they are just about as conservative as Republican men.  There are some relatively moderate ones (such as Ileana Ro-Lehtinen (R FL-18) , with a first dimension score of 0.46), some not-so moderate ones (such as Michelle Bachmann (R MN-6), out on the far right side with a score of 0.90), and several in the middle. Moreover, a mean comparison test doesn’t find any gender difference in conservatism among Republicans (t=0.35, df=239, p>.70).

By contrast, Democratic women appear to still be more liberal than their male counterparts, where the most moderate woman (Shelley Berkley (D NV-1) with a score of -0.54) is still quite a bit more liberal than the most moderate man (Jason Altmire (D PA-4)  with a score of +0.02).   This is also borne out in a mean comparison test, with evidence that the Democratic women are rather more liberal than men (t=3.8, df=190, p<.01).

What we don’t see in these aggregate statistics, however, is how men and women differ on a particular subset of issues.  For example, there’s pretty strong evidence that women in office tend to focus on “women” or “family” issues such as reproductive rights, education spending and the like.   That continues to be true among Democratic women, who are among the strongest supporters of abortion rights, while many Democratic men tend to be far less enthusiastic about them.  It will be interesting to see is if the new crop of GOP women specialize in these policy areas as their predecessors often have, or if they elect to focus on areas where women have traditionally had less influence such as tax policy or business regulation.

So, is the fact that there is no gender gap among Republicans much of a surprise?  Given the national prominence of conservative women such as Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin, no, we shouldn’t be too surprised.  Perhaps the image we have of moderate female Republicans in the Senate is a function of a small sample size.  Alternatively, as the Politico article suggests, it may be the result of a different era in Republican party politics.

*Politico incorrectly reports that there are 93 women in the House.  There are 93 women in Congress: 76 in the House, and another 17 in the Senate.

**For those not familiar with ideal point estimates, I’m working on a primer which will be posted soon.  In the meantime, what you really need to know is that a score of -1 means one is really liberal, and +1 is really conservative.  The horizontal axis is the economic left-right ideological continuum (taxes, social welfare programs, etc.), while the vertical axis is generally treated as the social liberal-conservative continuum (prayer in public schools, gay marriage, abortion, etc).  There haven’t been many social issues so far, so the vertical axis isn’t too important right now.