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Catherine Reyes-Housholder

March 6th, 2024

How women win the (Latin American) presidency

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Catherine Reyes-Housholder

March 6th, 2024

How women win the (Latin American) presidency

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The presidency stands out as the office that is most difficult for women to obtain. To better understand how women win the presidency, Catherine Reyes-Housholder looks at the crucial step of how women secure nominations by major political parties, taking as a case study the upcoming elections in Mexico.


Across the globe, the presidency stands out as the political office that is most difficult for women to obtain. Democratic elections remain the most routine and legitimate way to become president, yet women have won just 6% of the world’s presidential races from 1990-2020. Women’s success rates during this timeframe vary slightly across regions, from 9% in Asia to just 3% in Africa. Latin America, to date, has produced 10 women’s victories, but its rate of electing women hovers around 7%.

How do women win the presidency? Feminist voters could drive women’s presidential victories. But in my research, I have found little evidence of that. Women, most prominently in Latin America and Asia, have won presidential elections in highly conservative or deeply patriarchal countries.

Some people think that sexism is the number one reason why countries like the United States have never elected a woman. While sexism undoubtedly undermined Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, scholars such as Lynn Vavreck have shown that election fundamentals—presidential approval ratings, the state of the economy, and partisanship—predicted a very close election. Fundamentals, although they boosted her popular vote, were not strong enough for her to secure the all-important electoral college. In that sense, the 2016 outcome was not that surprising.

As election fundamentals generally drive presidential election outcomes, I argue that the true mystery behind women’s victories lies in their nominations by major political parties. In other words, the reason that women rarely win is that the major parties rarely nominate them.

The role of gender in presidential nominations

In my research, I set out a simple theory to better understand the circumstances in which political parties nominate a woman for president.

I start by assuming that those in the party who choose the candidates (usually party elites or members) pick presidential candidates that they think have the right set of traits to help them achieve their goals (such as maximizing the voter share or building the party’s brand). They therefore face incentives to nominate someone with a certain set of qualities. This is where gender enters the picture: selectors have gendered incentives when the traits that they look for and use to assess possible nominees are associated with men or women.

Numerous studies demonstrate that many traits desired in presidents, such as “toughness” and “experience”, are associated with the male sex. This probably helps explain why parties tend to nominate men for president.

Adding to this, I argue that “novelty” and “moral integrity” are attributes which selectors sometimes look for, and that these traits are associated with women (in presidential politics) in diverse parts of the world. Regarding the former, because men dominate presidential politics, women can be viewed as bringing something new or symbolizing change. Regarding the latter, citizens may associate female presidential nominees with moral integrity for at least three reasons. First, women are often associated with motherhood, and idealized mothers are supposed to be moral beacons, instilling values in their children. Second, because women are often political outsiders, they have less access to networks of corruption. Third, because women are more risk-adverse, they may be less likely to break rules, especially ethical ones.

Attributes like “novelty” and “moral integrity” are often associated with women

Gendered incentives do not tell the whole story, however. Ultimately, what matters is how selectors evaluate the various candidates based on their perceived capacity to transmit desired traits to voters – what I call an individual’s perceived potential. In the end, it is this that moves selectors to back certain candidates over others.

In summary, then, if selectors calculate that in order to achieve their goals, they need a candidate to convey novelty and moral integrity, that party’s incentives become gendered feminine. But whether or not the party actually nominates a woman also depends on whether the female candidate in question is best-suited to convey the coveted attributes. If selectors perceive her as having the greatest potential to do this, then they become more likely to nominate her instead of another woman or a man.

These two key concepts, gendered incentives and perceived potential, help explain why, for example, the Concertación in Chile in 2005 nominated Michelle Bachelet and why the Workers’ Party in Brazil picked Dilma Rousseff in 2010. In the first instance, Concertación party elites thought Bachelet was the best-suited to convey the attributes of novelty, moral integrity, as well as feminine leadership. In the second, outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva handpicked Rousseff thanks in large part to her ability to convey moral integrity and modernity. He seemed to think that backing Brazil’s first presidenta would make him look good to the domestic and international audiences.

Nominated by incumbent parties, these women won their races by comfortable margins thanks to the backing of the sitting president, solid levels of partisanship, and a stable economic situation.

Looking ahead: the Mexico 2024 election

Mexico will likely become the next country in Latin America to elect a presidenta – on June 2, 2024. A former mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum (shown below) last year clinched the nomination of the ruling left-wing party, MORENA. She is consistently polling at over 50% of voter intentions, far ahead of the second-placed contender, Xóchitl Gálvez, representing the Fuerza y Corazón por México coalition, whose support is around 30%. No male candidates from any other parties have been polling over 5%.

Assuming that either Sheinbaum or Gálvez finishes first, this Mexican race fits well with the wider patterns of how women win in the region.

Claudia Sheinbaum

First, the Mexican case highlights how women, so far, have only won via major parties or coalitions. Women have won four times as nominees of incumbent parties (Chile 2006, Argentina 2007, Costa Rica 2010, and Brazil 2010), and three times running for their own re-elections (Argentina 2011, Chile 2013, and Brazil 2014). Women have won three times as nominees of major opposition parties or coalitions (Nicaragua 1990, Panama 1999, and Honduras 2021).

This differs greatly from the way Latin American men win the presidency. Many of the most famous presidents in the region such as Alberto Fujimori in Peru (1990), Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1998) and more recently Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (2018) and Javier Milei in Argentina (2023) won presidential elections by creating their own personalistic parties or riding a weak party to victory. Women, to date, have never won the presidency this way – and with two women competing from major parties that have previously governed, the Mexican case seems unlikely to break the mould.

Second, the Sheinbaum-Gálvez matchup highlights the importance (but also the rarity) of parties choosing to nominate women instead of men in the first place. From 1990-2019, Latin American men comprised about nine in 10 presidential candidacies that went on to receive at least 1% of the vote and it is unusual (though not unprecedented) for presidential elections to feature two women nominees representing major parties, as with Sheinbaum and Gálvez. This underscores the point that without women candidates, women will not win.

The Mexican case seems like it will end up looking pretty similar to the cases of Chile and Brazil. Recent polls show the sitting president with approval ratings of almost 70%, which bodes well for Sheinbaum. But again, the key to understanding the case of Mexico lies in understanding the factors that drove MORENA and the Fuerza y Corazón por México coalition to nominate women in the first place. Ultimately, securing the presidential nominations of major political parties is women’s surest path to success.

 


 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s). They do not represent the position of LSE Inequalities, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Image credits: Octavio Hoyos and Lisa-S via Shutterstock

About the author

Catherine Reyes-Housholder

Catherine Reyes-Housholder

Catherine Reyes-Housholder is an Assistant Professor at the Instituto de Ciencia Política at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile. She also is an Associate Researcher at the Centro de Estudios de Conflicto y Cohesión Social (COES).

Posted In: Gender | Latin America inequalities | Politics of Inequality

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