Men generally have lower pitched voices than women — and there’s a lot of research suggesting that people are more willing to vote for somebody whose voice pitch is more, well, manly. In a 2016 paper, researchers made recordings of five men and five women speaking the same sentence: “I urge you to vote for me this November.” They played these recordings for 393 men and 411 women, all of whom were participants in the Cooperative Congressional Election Study — a nationally representative survey that’s used to track all kinds of voter behavior and opinions.
Participants were randomly assigned to listen to either five pairs of male voices or five pairs of female voices, and were asked which of each pair they’d prefer to vote for. Across the board, participants preferred to vote for the candidate with the lower-pitched voice, regardless of if that candidate was male or female. And the effect was clearer for participants over 40 — you know, the people most likely to turn out to vote.
But it’s not like someone’s voice means much when it comes to actually governing. The people who did this study of voice pitch later went back and analyzed whether the voice pitch of sitting members of Congress correlated with their legislative activity, the holding of leadership positions or their influence in setting legislative priorities. Lo and behold, having a deeper voice does not make you a better politician. Voters just apparently sorta think it does.
…Studies suggest that voters hold female candidates to higher standards than their male counterparts — women who get elected to public office tend to be more qualified for the jobs they hold than men who get elected, for example.
… Studies have found that white voters see black and Latino candidates as more ideologically extreme and less competent. There’s also evidence white voters resist coming out to vote for black candidates even when they share an ideology with that candidate. And black women still rely on the black electorate to win their races.
…Media narratives, in turn, often prey on these biases, which only makes them stronger. In lifting up electability as a marker of fitness, we’ve inadvertently created a system that caters to whatever our imagined lowest common denominator might be. You might want to vote for a black, female candidate, goes the narrative … but other voters are racist and sexist and so you can’t.
…“The average person knows a little about politics, but not a ton,” Stephen Utych, a professor of political science at Boise State University, said. And voters use polls as a source of information to fill in the gaps. “If I’m a Republican and other Republicans don’t like this person, I don’t know what it is, but there must be something wrong with them,” Utych said. We American voters really like to believe we’re independent, Kam agreed, but the reality is that we take a lot of cues from the herd.
..The interaction of polls and media becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy, Abramowitz and Utych both said. And candidates can shift the perception of how electable they are by striking back at the media and crafting their own narratives. In a 2018 study, the share of voters who, after reading a candidate’s defense of their own electability, were willing to think the candidate could win the election more than doubled, rising from 15 percent to nearly 34 percent.
…From what we can see in research on congressional races, which are more numerous [than presidential contests,] there’s something about electability that is shifting. Something fundamental.
“I think there is an idea in the media of a centrist, usually white, not necessarily college educated voter who is the one at play and that probably has influenced the way the media is covering it,” said Joshua Darr, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and professor of political science at Louisiana State University. That assumption of the power of the centrist voter is, to some extent, evidence based. Historically, being moderate and appealing to centrist voters was a great way to win congressional elections, Utych and Abramowitz both told me. But that’s been changing. Abramowitz’s analysis of the 2018 House elections turned up evidence that an incumbent candidate’s past voting record — whether they were more moderate or not — didn’t really make much of a difference in whether they won or lost, regardless of party. What’s more, he told me, the number of moderate members in Congress has been falling for decades. Forty-eight percent of the 95th Congress (1977-79) fell within the moderate range of ideology, compared to just 16 percent of the 115th Congress (2017-19), Abramowitz found.
Ideologues are elected more often than they used to be. Outsiders are elected more often, too.