Experts often advise even openly gay and lesbian candidates to downplay their sexual orientation or risk losing votes, but David Niven, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, claimed at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Philadelphia that not only does a gay or lesbian candidate's sexual orientation no longer pose a political disadvantage, but that it may actually help them win office.
At one time, gay candidates were discouraged from running at all, and when it was found out later, it was downplayed. Yet as we have seen with Brexit and Donald Trump, surveys are even junkier now than they were 40 years ago, when pollsters at least had some idea who had phones. Using fictional or hypothetical candidates was even lass valuable in predicting how voters respond to actual candidates once they're in a private voting booth.
Niven looked at a real race, with real voters casting ballots for real candidates; the 2016 March primary race for county recorder in Ohio's Franklin County, which includes Columbus.
Two Democratic candidates vied for the position: Incumbent Terry Brown, an openly gay man seeking his second term in office, and challenger Danny O'Connor, who is straight. Brown's website featured a photograph of him and his husband, neither he, his opponent nor the "Democrats United" ticket both candidates ran with referenced Brown's sexual orientation or interests in advancing civil rights issues. The low-key race for county recorder drew minimal attention, none of which identified Brown as gay.
Niven randomly chose 30 precincts for the study. Because most gay and lesbian candidates tend to compete in places where Democrats are likely to win, he said, only households with a registered Democrat in residence were included.
Fifteen of the precincts received one of three 4x6 glossy postcards featuring Brown, while the other half, serving as a control group, received no mailing.
- The first mailer featured a photograph of Brown and listed his efforts to save taxpayer money, improve the efficiency of the recorder's office and commitment to stamping out real estate fraud.
- A second mailer included the same campaign claims, but featured a photograph of the candidate and his husband.
- A third mailing repeated the claims of the previous two and included the same photograph as in the second mailing, but added an
additional claim of the candidate's commitment to marriage equality for gay people.
Brown ultimately lost the race to O'Connor, but not because of his sexual orientation or commitment to marriage equality, says Niven.
According to the study, Brown actually received slightly less votes from voters who received the first mailer (which included only a photo of him) than he did from those in the control group who didn't receive any mailers.
Swapping a mailer featuring a photograph of the candidate with one of Brown and his husband produced slightly more votes, comparable to those of the control group.
That increase, while negligible, speaks volumes, said Niven.
"Study after study suggests there is some kind of penalty gay and lesbian candidates are subject to without exception. That decidedly did not happen here," he concluded.
The results of the third condition, in which voters received a mailer featuring a photograph of the candidate and his husband and listing his commitment to marriage equality, also defied conventional campaign wisdom, says Niven.
In that scenario, Brown received more than four percent more votes than he did in all of the other scenarios.
"A lot of races are won on four percent," said Niven. "This is a pretty startling jump in terms of getting people's attention in a race they wouldn't otherwise give two thoughts about."
Niven says the results strongly suggest that emphasizing Brown's commitment to the rights of gay and lesbian people gave him a political edge.