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In almost all elections in all European countries, more men than women vote for radical right-wing parties. Still, on average, as many women as men can identify with a radical right-wing ideology. The gender gap is mainly due to the fact that voting behaviour among men is generally less strongly influenced by the stigma attached to many radical right-wing parties.

Stembiljet met rood potlood
Credits: Flickr CC

This is the conclusion of doctoral research by UvA political scientist Eelco Harteveld, who will be defending his dissertation on 23 September. Harteveld also discovered that men are less deterred by being associated with prejudice and that they stand to benefit more from the protection against globalisation offered by some radical right-wing parties.

Traditionally, those studying voting behaviour suppose that people vote for the party they are most ideologically related to or which best represents their interests. ‘The fact that, despite ideological similarities, we see a gender gap in radical right-wing voting behaviour, shows that this interpretation is lacking,’ says Harteveld.

In the voting booth

Through an ingenious experiment and analysis of numerous European voter studies, Harteveld identified two social-psychological mechanisms which better explain the right-wing gender gap. In an online experiment, around 4,000 Swedish respondents evaluated a radical right-wing party programme by clicking on a positive, negative or neutral thumb. During the experiment, Harteveld gave the suggestion that other respondents were evaluating the party programme simultaneously. The little thumb icons had counters that supposedly kept track of how many positive, negative and neutral reactions the programme had received. How women judged a programme was more often related to how others had supposedly evaluated a particular programme than was the case among men.

It seems that men are therefore less influenced by the opinions of others when assessing a party programme. However, this does not necessarily mean that they make better choices in the voting booth. Harteveld: ‘It could be interpreted as showing that women are on average less faithful to their own beliefs when voting. However, you could also say that women take more information into account when making their choice. After all, the stigma attached to a particular party may contain valuable information about, for example, the reliability of that party.’

Jobbik and Golden Dawn

In a subsidiary study, Harteveld identified the role of the legitimacy of the actions of the party itself. From thousands of online questionnaires, it became clear that women are more likely to avoid associations with prejudice than men. According to the doctoral student, this explains why parties that are strongly racist and violent, such as Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece, tend to attract more male than female voters. While, for example, the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) – which in spite of its anti-immigration views, distances itself explicitly from racist violence – has a more balanced support base.

In addition to these two social psychological factors, socio-economic status turned out to also be related with the higher numbers of men voting radical right. Analysis of voter research showed that men more often occupy positions that are under pressure as a result of globalisation than women. Truck drivers who are afraid of Polish competition are an example of this. Radical right-wing parties with a more leftist economic signature – retirement age down, pensions up, maintain a social safety net for ‘our’ workers – are more successful in attracting support from these men. On the other hand, women, who more often work in the public sector, where their positions are slightly better guaranteed, are not as supportive of such parties.

American campaigns

Harteveld hopes his research will contribute to a better understanding of voting behaviour. ‘These social psychological factors affect not only the political right. People of every ideology are social beings when it comes to deciding in the voting booth.’ Furthermore, Harteveld’s research offers insights that parties could benefit from. Extreme parties – both right and left – need to work on their legitimacy, renounce violence and curb fascist utterances if they wish to attract more voters, and especially more female voters. Harteveld: 'Geert Wilders understands this well. By not admitting members to the PVV, he prevents the party from being associated with unsavoury characters who might cross the line in blogs or at events.’ In addition, the study shows the importance of social context in recruiting voters. ‘You can take advantage of this via social media. Or even better, by campaigning locally, like the Americans do.’

PhD details

Mr E. Harteveld: Daring to Vote Right. Why Men are more Likely than Women to Vote for the Radical Right. Supervisor: Prof. W. van der Brug. Co-supervisor: Dr S. Dahlberg.