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Priming Gender: Campaigning on Women's Issues in U.S. Senate Elections


  • I am grateful to Pat Sellers, John Clark, Mike Wagner, and especially Maryann Barakso for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. I also thank the four anonymous reviewers for their useful insights.

Brian F. Schaffner is assistant professor of government, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016 (


The gender gap has been an important feature of American elections since 1980. Yet, most explanations for the effects of gender on voting behavior focus on differences between men and women without taking account of how campaign strategies may serve to highlight or mask these differences. I examine how Senate candidates act strategically in deciding whether and how to target women voters. I find that candidates make these decisions based largely on two factors: (1) the importance of these issues to the state's voters and (2) whether gender gaps had been decisive in previous statewide contests. Analysis of exit-poll data indicates that when campaigns focused more on women's issues, women became more likely to vote Democratic while the vote choices of men were unaffected. Thus, campaign strategies do appear to influence the importance of gender differences in voting behavior.