Denominators Matter: Women as a Percentage of All Candidates and Nominees


The current COVID-19 crisis has already offered important reminders about how to define and address problems across sectors – health, economic, and political. Here is a simple one: denominators matter. For weeks now, President Trump has touted the total number of coronavirus tests completed in the U.S. as surpassing the rest of the world, implying our country’s superior performance in combatting COVID-19. But this raw number is misleading because the vast size of the U.S. population means that more tests are a given, not a sign of success. The denominator – population size – matters in determining whether or not the U.S. rate of testing is on par with the rest of the world. It is not. As of this week, the U.S. continues to fall behind other countries for tests conducted per million people. Using raw numbers not only yields a mischaracterization of the data, but also risks underestimating the policy – and public health – problem that these data reveal.

At the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), we are used to reminding members of the media and public that denominators matter in assessing women’s political progress. For example, when the number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives reached 100 for the first time, many celebrated this as a key milestone for gender equality. But 100 women in the House did not represent equality. Women at the time were 100 of 435 House members, just 23% of all officeholders. It would take more than a doubling of that number to reach gender parity in officeholding.

Denominators are also important in assessing women’s political progress as candidates for political office. Research shows that – generally – when women run for office, they win at comparable rates to men in comparable contests (see our latest report, however, for more on gender differences in the work required to yield equitable outcomes). That means that one route to increasing the number of women in office is increasing the number of women who run for office.

The 2018 election provided some evidence that increasing the percentage of women in the candidate pool can help to ensure more women are elected. For example, while women were just 17.8% of all candidates on U.S. House ballots in 2016, that number jumped to 24.2% in 2018. Likewise, upon the start of the subsequent congresses, women were 19% of House members in 2017 and 23.4% in 2019.

Many more factors contribute to women’s gains, including electoral contexts that favor their party and/or create opportunities in the form of open or competitive seats. But still, increasing women’s presence in the candidate pools is important in taking advantage of especially opportune moments. This was true for Democratic women running in 2018, a year that proved especially successful for Democrats in U.S. House contests. From 2016 to 2018, the percentage of women among all Democratic House candidates increased from about one-quarter to one-third, and Democratic women made record gains in officeholding as a result. The number of Republican women in the House went down as a result of the 2018 election, evidencing in part the difficult environment for all Republicans. But Republican women were also an especially small part of the GOP candidate pool; in 2018, 13.7% of GOP candidates were women, up from 11.5% in 2016.

We are tracking the percentage of candidates who are women in 2020 to determine whether or not women will again increase their presence on U.S. House ballots nationwide. With filed candidates certified in just about 70% of U.S. House districts (as of April 20, 2020), women are: 28.5% of all U.S. House candidates, 36.7% of all Democratic U.S. House candidates, and 21.1% of all Republican U.S. House candidates on primary ballots this year. Each of these numbers is up from 2018 – with the jump largest for Republican women, but the representation of women candidates is still far from parity with men.



This year, for the first time, we are also tracking women as a percentage of state legislative candidates nationwide. Those data are very preliminary, but they reveal similar patterns. In the first 5 states to hold state legislative primaries (Arkansas, California, Illinois, North Carolina, and Texas), women were: 32.5% of all state legislative candidates, 43.5% of all Democratic state legislative candidates, and 19.4% of all Republican state legislative candidates on the ballot. These data are consistent with the slightly higher levels of representation for women at the state legislative level, as well as the partisan disparities that persist among women state legislative officeholders.

We are also analyzing the percentage of nominees who are women – those candidates making it through their primary elections. Especially due to COVID-related primary delays, these numbers are still small. Just under 30% of U.S. House nominees have been selected in the 2020 cycle. Of them, women are: 33.6% of all U.S. House nominees, 44.5% of all Democratic U.S. House nominees, and 20.9% of all Republican U.S. House nominees. Each of these percentages is up from women’s representation among nominees in 2018 House elections (inclusive of all nominees following the end of the primaries), with Republican women’s percentage of the nominee pool increasing most from 2018, at least in these early primary states.



A caveat to the rise in both candidacies and nominations for Republican women is that the political environment may not be as friendly to these women in 2020 as it was to Democratic women in 2018. CAWP Research Associate Claire Gothreau took a look at the prospects for Republican women this year in a recent post, noting the particular hurdles they face in running as challengers in Democratic-leaning districts this November. Still, these data show that the rise in Republican women’s House candidacies (a new high) is not only in raw numbers, but also in women’s representation among all Republicans on House ballots in 2020. 

Taking the denominators into account in our assessment of women’s political status and progress often results in some cognitive dissonance, and that is true again here. On the one hand, it is important to celebrate the gains in women’s representation in candidate pools and among nominees. But on the other hand, these data reveal that women remain underrepresented at each stage of the electoral process and across parties. That underrepresentation in electoral politics contributes to the persistent gender disparity in officeholding, which has substantive effects on our political institutions and policymaking. Most important is that these data remind us that we have more work to do.

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).