Report

Revisiting the Mommy Wars After Palin: Politics, Gender and Parenthood

  • September 15, 2008
  • By Rich Morin and Paul Taylor

Who makes better candidates -- moms or dads? And more broadly, what impact do both the gender and parenting status of candidates have on their chances to win an election? An experimental survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that the answer depends, in no small part, on whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.

The Pew experiment was conducted earlier this summer, before the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate scrambled much of the conventional political wisdom about who's on which side of the decades-old "Mommy Wars" over the competing demands of career and motherhood.

The online test was designed to give respondents no indication that it was about gender or parenting status. It found that Republicans are significantly less likely to vote for a candidate who is a mother of young children than one who is a father of young children, other factors being equal. Barely one-in-five (21%) Republicans said they were very likely to support a candidate for U.S. Congress who was the mother of school-aged children, while 31% said they would support a father who had the identical personal and career profile.

In addition, GOP partisans were 7 percentage points more likely to support a woman who has no children than to support a woman who is the mother of two young children (28% vs. 21%), though this difference fell just short of being statistically significant.

Among Democrats, gender and parenthood had the opposite effect: Democrats were significantly more likely to vote for a candidate for Congress who is the mother of small children than to support an identical candidate who is the father of small children (33% vs. 24%). Democratic women in particular more strongly supported Ann the mother than Andrew the father (36% vs. 19%). Among Democratic men, neither gender nor parenthood made a difference.

Taken together, the findings suggest women with young children pay a "mommy penalty" among Republicans if they run for Congress. Among Democrats, by contrast, it's the fathers of small children who are at a disadvantage and it's the mothers who are more likely to be strongly supported.

These results echo the findings of other Pew surveys that show Republicans -- who are more likely to embrace traditional social values -- are far more troubled than Democrats by the long term trend toward mothers of young children working outside the home. In a 2007 survey, for example, some 53% of Republicans described this trend as bad for society, compared with just 38% of Democrats who felt the same way.

But these surveys were conducted before the dramatic entrance onto the national scene of Palin, who suddenly has become the most famous working mom in the country. The enthusiastic initial response to her candidacy -- especially among Republicans and among women -- raises an intriguing political question for the fall campaign: might the public's long held attitudes on these "mommy wars" matters bend under the force of Palin's compelling personal saga?

Read the full report Revisiting the Mommy Wars After Palin: Politics, Gender and Parenthood on the Pew Research Center Web site.