As the 2020 congressional primaries begin, do the trends for women candidates match 2018?

A record number of women ran for and were elected to office in 2018. Their success resulted in claims of a “women’s wave” or another “Year of the Woman” in American politics. But the 2018 election neither upended gender disparities in political representation nor gendered hurdles for women candidates in the U.S. Much of the attention to gender and the 2020 election has been focused on the Democratic presidential primary, but that contest is only one part of the gender story of election 2020. More than 500 offices at the congressional and statewide level (and many more in state legislative contests) are also up for election this year, providing multiple sites for us to evaluate not only the numerical presence and progress for women, but also the different ways in which gender shapes campaign terrain for all candidates.

Ahead of the first congressional primaries of 2020, I’ll focus here on who’s running for office this year, leaving the analysis of how they are running – and specifically, how they are navigating gender and intersectional dynamics on the campaign trail – to the many election analyses that we will share throughout this election season.

After record numbers of women ran and won in 2018, will the 2020 election bring a comparable or even larger pool of women candidates running for the U.S. House?

It is too early to give final counts for women running in 2020, but we can compare the number of women who are likely to run (they have filed or reported they plan to file) at this point in 2020 to the same point in the 2018 race. Based on comparisons at the end of February 2018 and 2020, more women are running this year; 584 women are likely House candidates today versus 437 women at this point in 2018. But this 33.6% increase from 2018 numbers is not as large as the jump in women’s candidacies we saw between 2016 and 2018; at this point in 2018, the number of likely women House candidates was double the number in 2016. Likewise, if current numbers hold this year, the increase in women House candidates from 2018 would be about 22.7% from the record number women who filed for House contests in 2018 (476). This, again, is a smaller jump than we saw in 2018, when the total number of filed women candidates for the U.S. House was up by 74.4% from 2016.



Will women come closer to parity with men in the pool of 2020 House candidates?

In 2018, women were 24.2% of all U.S. House candidates who appeared on primary ballots.  At this point in 2020 – among only the 13 states where filing deadlines passed before March 1 (45% of all House seats), women are 26.7% of all House candidates. This indicates there is potential that the gender gap in candidacies might close slightly this year, but women are still far underrepresented in the candidate pool. Again, signs thus far are that the gains in 2018 were greater than we might see this year; women went from 17.8% of all House candidates in 2016 to 24.2% in 2018.



Do Super Tuesday states tell us anything about the trends for women candidates this year?

If we limit our comparisons to just the 5 states that hold congressional primaries this week – Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, and Texas – we see similar trends in women’s representation on U.S. House ballots. This year, 150 (89D, 61R) women will be on House ballots in these 5 states, up from 126 (95D, 31R) in 2018 (+19%). The number of open House seats across these 5 states is also up this year, from 10 in 2018 to 15 in 2020. Open seats are likely to attract more candidates to run, men and women alike.

Another way to better account for that change in political opportunity is to look at women’s representation among all House candidates running this week. Women are 27.3% of all House candidates on Super Tuesday ballots, compared to 24.8% of House candidates in the same states in 2018. Therefore, even in a more opportune environment for all, women candidates’ rate of increase is greater than the rate among men.



But what about party differences? The gender stories for Republican and Democratic women in election 2018 were very different. Will 2020 prove to be a better year for the recruitment and/or success of women in the Republican Party?

Based on comparisons at the end of February 2018 and 2020, more Democratic and Republican women are running this year, but the rate of increase is higher for Republican women. This trend is opposite of what we saw in 2018, when the “surge” of women running for the U.S. House was almost entirely fueled by Democrats. While Democratic women still significantly outnumber Republican women candidates – representing more than 60% of all likely women House candidates at this point in 2020, their numbers are only about 7.6% higher than they were at this point in 2018. In contrast, the number of likely Republican women House candidates is more than double (+126%) what it was at this point in the 2018 race.



Citing this apparent reversal in party trends between 2018 and 2020 merits a few caveats in anticipating outcomes this year. First, because the pool of Republican women candidates continues to be smaller than Democrats, the higher rate of increase will yield smaller overall gains in women’s candidacies than the gains we saw from 2016 to 2018 (as indicated in the data above). Also, in anticipating success for women candidates this year, we have to consider the political environment for Democrats and Republicans. In 2018, Democrats fared better than Republicans across the board, and the record number of Democratic women candidates both capitalized on and contributed to those gains. Will 2020 be an equally opportune year for Republicans, especially those challenging Democrats? That will matter for Republican women, among whom the majority (64.5%) are running to challenge Democratic incumbents this year.

Finally, not all trends in women’s candidacies are seeing a party reversal in 2020. Democratic women not only continue to outnumber Republican women House candidates, but they also continue to fare better as a percentage of all candidates in their party. At this point in 2020 – among only the 13 states where filing deadlines passed before March 1 (45% of all House seats), women are 34.9% of Democratic House candidates and 18.9% of Republican House candidates.

Still, Republican women’s gains as a percentage of their party’s House candidates are greater than that of Democratic women. In 2018, women were 32.5% of all Democratic House candidates and 13.7% of all Republican House candidates. Likewise, Republican women are better represented among their party’s candidates in this week’s primaries in Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, and Texas than they were in 2018; in 2020, Republican women are 21% of Republican House candidates in these states, up from 13.1% of their party’s candidates in the same states in 2018. Democratic women are 34.4% of Democrats on House ballots in these states in 2020, compared to 34.9% in 2018.



Together, these data points suggest greater numeric progress – at least proportionately – for Republican women than Democratic women in 2020, but they are still playing catch-up.

Of course, numeric gains at the candidacy stage are just one measure of progress for women in electoral politics. Throughout election 2020, we will be watching how women fare – compared to men, as well as across party, level of office, and by race and ethnicity – as part of CAWP’s Election Watch. We will also be analyzing alternative measures of success and progress, including the ways in which women candidates disrupt the norms of both gender and candidacy as they run for office.

With the majority of primaries left to go and 8 more months until Election Day, the gender stories of election 2020 are only starting to be written.

Kelly Dittmar

Kelly Dittmar is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden and Director of Research and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is the co-author of A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) (with Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll) and author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015).