Although the landscape for female candidates in U.S. politics has improved, research continues to find that many voters possess sexist attitudes. We rely on a standard political communication framework to help reconcile sexism in the electorate with increasingly favorable outcomes for women in primary elections. Based on two national survey experiments, we first demonstrate that in the absence of gendered campaign rhetoric, sexism is a weak predictor of support for female candidates on both sides of the political aisle. We then show, however, that when a male candidate attempts to activate sexism among voters by attacking a female opponent, gender attitudes become more salient—but not to the woman’s disadvantage. In a Democratic primary, gendered attacks backfire and lead to a significant boost in support for the female candidate. On the Republican side, a male candidate does not face the same backlash, but the attacks do very little to depress his female opponent’s support. While the persistence of hostile attitudes toward women has slowed the march toward gender equality in society, our experimental results suggest that sexism exerts only contingent effects in primary elections and not systematically to female candidates’ detriment.
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