Expert Outlooks: What to Watch in Election 2020

With one year to go until Election Day 2020, the Center for American Women and Politics has asked experts in gender and politics – scholars and practitioners alike – to provide their outlooks for the gender and intersectional dynamics to watch in the next year. See their contributions below and stay tuned to CAWP’s Election Watch throughout the campaign for additional, and more detailed, analyses of these dynamics. Finally, don’t miss CAWP’s latest report, Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond, for important context of what happened in 2018 and what we’re watching in the year ahead.

To what degree will there be pressure to ensure that the ticket is diverse in some meaningful way?
Kathleen Dolan, Distinguished Professor of Political Science
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

The selection of a vice presidential candidate is always an interesting aspect of a presidential election campaign, but the forces surrounding the 2020 Democratic nomination may make this one particularly interesting – and possibly historic. The Democratic Party tends to value diversity as a guiding principle and, as a result, has attracted the most diverse pool of candidates for the nomination that we have ever seen. Women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community can see themselves reflected in many of the candidates and can hear these candidates speak to issues important to their communities. 

Given that the last two Democratic nominees were a Black man and a White woman, I wonder to what degree there will be pressure to ensure that the ticket is diverse in some meaningful way. If the primary process results in one of the White men being the nominee, will there be pressure on that candidate to choose a woman or a person of color (or both!) as the vice-presidential candidate? Would the nomination of a White woman lead to the selection of a person of color for the #2 spot? Would a primary victory by a woman ironically lead to a call for the vice-presidential candidate to be a man? Given the diversity of the pool of candidates this year, the Democrats may have the chance to field a historic ticket.

I’ll be watching non-college-educated White women.
Christine Matthews, President
Bellwether Research


In 2016, non-college-educated White women gave Donald Trump a nearly thirty-point margin over Hillary Clinton. But it appears the president has not worn well with them.

In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 53% of non-college-educated white women said they disapproved of the job Donald Trump is doing; just 42% approved. While the president can count on support from white non-college-educated men who remain ardent supporters, the math does not work for him without the women.

However, it’s not all good news for Democrats. Their support from non-college-educated women may depend on who they nominate. If it’s an old white man, then they are in luck. White non-college-educated-women prefer former Vice President Joe Biden by twelve points (54%-42%) and Senator Bernie Sanders by five (50%-45%) over Trump. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris tie with Trump and Mayor Pete Buttigieg is down by a few points. This isn’t set in stone, obviously, but this early polling does send a signal about what non-college white women are looking for. They are the ones I will be watching.

Retention and growth.
Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics
Rutgers University

I’m watching to see if the 35 first term incumbent Congresswomen running for reelection, many of whom won in districts they flipped from Red to Blue, will retain their seats. I’m also attentive to the Republican women who are running for the House this cycle. In 2018, 41 seats changed party hands from Republican to Democrat, making those seats particularly vulnerable to a GOP challenge in 2020. Will Republican women be recruited and run for these targets of opportunity? Will they make it through their primary? Will they have the financial backing they need to be successful? Can Republican women make up some of the ground they lost in 2018, both in Congress and in state legislatures?

An eye towards intersectional candidates.
Ivy Cargile, Assistant Professor of Political Science
California State University – Bakersfield

Candidates’ identities matter. The question for 2020, however, is in what ways will the intersecting identities of women candidates of color matter? Women of color candidates made history across levels of office in 2018, and there is little doubt that their intersectional identities helped to propel them. For the last two years, the American electorate has witnessed a government with elected officials who are more representative of them. The power of descriptive representation for communities who are underrepresented can be mobilizing. Will we see similar effects in 2020? And will the 2018 midterm elections motivate large numbers of women of color to decide to run for political office?

A quick glimpse of candidates such as Catalina Lauf (a Latina Republican seeking to challenge Lauren Underwood in the Illinois 14th Congressional District) or Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez (a Latina seeking to challenge Republican Senator from Texas John Cornyn) signals this might be true. Beyond the numbers, however, how will voters react to women of color candidates? Will we have a repeat of the aftermath of the 1992 elections where the country elected historic numbers of women but gains slowed thereafter? As we get closer to 2020, it is vital to remain keenly aware of how the identities of women candidates of color will influence their campaigns and electoral outcomes.

Our research team is analyzing the traits used to describe the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in online, print, and television media.
Erin C. Cassese, Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Delaware
Meredith Conroy, Associate Professor of Political Science
California State University – San Bernardino

Researchers have been tracking cable and online news coverage of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to see who is garnering the most attention. Since announcing his candidacy, former Vice President Joe Biden has led the pack with marked consistency. But the amount of media coverage candidates are receiving can only tell us so much. Past research shows that there are qualitative differences in coverage, which can shape public perceptions of the candidates, particularly along gender lines. Given the record number of women in the presidential primary, it seems critically important to understand whether media coverage of the women running is more negative and whether primary race coverage more generally reinforces stereotypic associations between gender and power. And with more people paying attention to the field than ever before, media coverage is arguably more consequential to a candidate’s credibility, standing in the polls, fundraising, and ultimately, to their success.  

To get a handle on whether male and female candidates receive qualitatively different media coverage, our research team is analyzing the traits used to describe the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in online, print, and television media as the primary contest unfolds. We’re focused on five dimensions of coverage: warmth, competence, compassion, honesty, and leadership. One of our goals in this project is to determine whether there are gender differences in the traits used to describe the candidates and whether these differences reflect biased media coverage of their campaigns. Our focus on warmth and competence in particular give us new insights into whether current female candidates continue to face a double bind –the need to embody a particular mix of both masculine and feminine traits in order to appear palatable to American voters. The double bind was a challenge for Hillary Clinton’s candidacies in 2008 and 2016, and we will evaluate how it manifests in 2020.

I want to see if national power brokers, gatekeepers, and institutions reevaluate their assessments of the viability of women of color as they look to 2020.
Kimberly Peeler-Allen
Founder, 
Higher Heights
Visiting Practitioner, Center for American Women and Politics

Of the 36 newly elected women in the 116th Congress, 25 of those women flipped seats from red to blue. Given the performance of women candidates and particularly the performance of women of color, I want to see if national power brokers, gatekeepers, and institutions reevaluate their assessments of viability as they look at 2020 down ballot candidates. It has been shown that a Black woman candidate is a great return on an investment, but of the five new Black women elected to Congress in 2018, those same gatekeepers, power brokers, and institutions sat on the sidelines until it was inevitable that those women would be the nominee when in many races where white women ran, they endorsed very early in the primary process when, all things being equal, the Black women should have received the same support. 

I am also curious as to whether we will see the same robust field of Black women candidates at the Congressional level in 2020 as we did in 2019.  Are Black women still feeling that the stakes are too high for them to sit on the sidelines or are they disheartened by the unsuccessful bids of women like Stacey Abrams whose candidacies were sabotaged by voter suppression and gerrymandering?

I’ll be watching how women candidates are raising and spending money in 2020… and how race and gender are working together to shape the campaign finance landscape.
Kira Sanbonmatsu, Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics
Rutgers University

One thing I’ll be watching in 2020 is campaign finance. Money is only one factor in campaigns. But it’s an important area to watch for the women running in 2020. Women candidates are successful fundraisers. However, many questions remain about whether fundraising is a level playing field for women candidates and especially women of color candidates. How are women faring as they pursue all levels of office including the presidency? Women donors are more involved in elections than ever before but they’re still outpaced by men’s giving. American women, including women of color, earn less than men and have fewer assets.

I’ll be watching how women candidates are raising and spending money in 2020, how they fare in comparison with men, whether women are able to close the gender gap as contributors, and how race and gender are working together to shape the campaign finance landscape. One resource I’ll be following is the comprehensive, 50-state information gathered by the National Institute on Money in Politics.

I’m paying close attention to the off-year 2019 state legislative elections for the Virginia General Assembly and their implications for 2020.
Rosalyn Cooperman, Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Mary Washington

I am paying close attention to the off-year 2019 state legislative elections for the Virginia General Assembly and their implications for 2020. In 2017, CAWP ranked Virginia 38th in the nation for women's representation in state legislatures. Following the elections that saw an unprecedented number of women Democrats elected to the Virginia General Assembly, the state jumped to 22nd for women's representation and the Virginia House of Delegates nearly flipped from red to blue. Following the 2018 midterm congressional elections, Virginia sent three newly elected women Democrats to Congress – Representatives Elaine Luria (VA-2), Abigail Spanberger (VA-7), and Jennifer Wexton (VA-10), all of whom defeated Republican incumbents – and flipped the state's congressional delegation from majority Republican to majority Democrat.

With an eye to 2020 congressional and presidential elections, I will be watching to see how Democratic and Republican women candidates fare in the November 2019 state legislative races. Several women legislators face competitive re-election bids. A number of progressive groups, including EMILY's List and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, have pledged funds to support women Democratic candidates and flip majority party control of the Virginia General Assembly. The results from 2019 may again foreshadow voter behavior in the Commonwealth in 2020 and also signal how Representatives Luria, Spanberger, and Wexton will fare in their first re-election bids.

I’m watching the field of Senate and House races, particularly in states where Latinas/os/xs hold a critical mass (30% or more).
Anna Sampaio, Professor of Ethnic Studies and Political Science and Chair of Ethnic Studies Department
Santa Clara University

Given their standing as the largest racial/ethnic minority population in the U.S. and their growing impact on key statewide races as well as the national electorate, my political lens this election is squarely fixed on Latina/o/x candidates and voters.

On the national stage, Julian Castro has struggled as a presidential contender, but has stood out from the crowded Democratic field by articulating a complex intersectional analysis of immigration reform and reproductive rights – challenging perceptions that these are exclusively raced or gendered issues. As the Democratic field narrows, I’m watching to see how Castro’s work on these key issues translates into the DNC platform and whether he retains his footing on the national stage as a vice presidential selection (particularly for Elizabeth Warren). I’m also watching the field of Senate and House races, particularly in states where Latinas/os/xs hold a critical mass (30% or more) and where there are high profile Latinas with political experience, who ran in previous races, or have held statewide office. Colorado stands out in this mix as activist Lorena Garcia is running in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate seat, and Crisanta Duran, who was the first Latina state House speaker in the country, will challenge Democratic incumbent Rep. Diana DeGette.

I’m also watching the impact of Latina/o/x voters on the Democratic primaries and key Senate races in Arizona and Colorado (both considered tossup contests) as well as New Mexico. In both Arizona and Colorado, the mixture of competitive Senate races and a growing tide of disenchanted Republicans and independent voters increases the likelihood that a mobilized Latina/o/x electorate could flip these seats to Democratic control and help to shift the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Similarly, Latina/o/x voters in California and Nevada stand to strongly impact the Democratic primaries as both states vote early this cycle with Nevada’s caucus on Feb. 22 following closely after New Hampshire, and California’s primary having moved up to March 3rd

Gender matters for the men, too.
Kelly Dittmar, Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics
Rutgers University

My own research investigates how gender shapes candidate behavior and campaign strategy. In my book and in analyses I have done in elections 2016 and 2018, I have emphasized (and shown) that the responsibility to redefine our ideals of political leadership – so that they are not so explicitly tied to masculinity and men – should not and does not fall on women candidates alone. Men play a central role, especially as they continue to outnumber women as candidates for office, in reinforcing or rejecting the status quo in American elections. Research focused on masculinity in presidential politics demonstrates men’s influence most overtly, but male candidates across parties and levels of office regularly make strategic and tactical decisions that maintain or reject masculinity as the standard by which fitness for political office is measured.

As we enter 2020, evaluating gender dynamics includes asking how men will navigate the gendered terrain of electoral politics this cycle. What pressure will be placed on them to speak to issues of gender equality (in policy and political representation) and/or to address their own privilege while making the case for their own candidacies? Does their gender strategy and/or behavior indicate maintenance or disruption of traditional rules of the game? And, more specifically, will Democratic presidential candidates – men and women alike – see the strategic value of contrasting President Donald Trump’s performance of masculinity in the ways they present themselves throughout the campaign?

Will there be another significant increase in the number of women who run for Congress in 2020? More importantly, what will their proportion be of the total pool?
Kathleen Dolan, Distinguished Professor of Political Science
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

As we saw in 2018, a historically high number of women candidates ran for Congress. The number of women running for the House and the Senate were significant increases over previous high totals. The most common explanation for this increase was that women were mobilized by President Trump’s election and the resulting activism of the women’s marches. After the election, we saw an all-time high number of women winning and serving in Congress. However, the overall percentage of women in Congress rose only slightly, from 21 percent to 24 percent. This was because, ironically, the number of men who ran for Congress in 2018 surged as well. In 2016, 1432 men ran for Congress. In 2018, that number was 1700. President Trump’s election appears to have mobilized all Democrats, women and men.  As a result, women’s proportion of the total candidate pool in 2018 was consistent with previous cycles. 

So advocates for women’s representation in office will be watching to see if there is another significant increase in the number of women who run for Congress in 2020. But, more importantly, we will keep an eye on their proportion of the total pool, which should give us a sense of whether women can comprise a greater percentage of the members of Congress after the election.

We’ll see many more firsts – not just more women, but more openly LGBTQ candidates and particularly more transgender candidates running (and winning).
Melissa Michelson, Professor of Political Science
Menlo College

In 2008, voters took a giant step forward on the path to equality by electing our first Black president. What’s the next giant step forward that we’ll take in 2020?

I think we’ll see many more firsts at the sub-presidential level, building on the 2018 results – not just more women, but more openly LGBTQ candidates and particularly more transgender candidates running (and winning). A notable groundbreaker here was Danica Roem in Virginia, who won in 2017 and is currently seeking reelection to the Virginia House of Delegates. She inspired multiple transgender candidates in 2018. That Rainbow Wave election also saw the groundbreaking victories of the openly gay governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, and the openly bisexual U.S. Senator for Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema. National survey data finds a strong majority of Americans would be comfortable being represented in Congress by a member of the LGBTQ community, and even with an LGBTQ president.

In addition to another record year of LGBTQ candidates and victories, we should be watching for whether this trend of increasing diversity will also include Republican candidates. Right now, of 765 openly LGBTQ elected officials in the country (0.15% of all elected officials), only 23 are Republicans.

It remains an open question whether we will see an increase or a drop in women’s representation across the two parties.
Michele Swers, Professor in the Department of Government
Georgetown University

One of the big stories of 2018 was the sharp increase in the number of Democratic women elected to Congress, particularly women of color, and the steep decline in the number of Republican women. With many of the Democratic women elected from districts that supported Donald Trump in 2016, will these women win re-election? Split-ticket voting is declining, and it will be harder to sell themselves as independent problem-solvers when the House is consumed by the impeachment inquiry and has few legislative accomplishments to tout.

Some of the U.S. House races to watch include candidates Abby Finkenauer (IA), Abigail Spanberger (VA), Lauren Underwood (IL), Elaine Luria (VA), Elissa Slotkin (MI), Lucy McBath (GA), and Xochitl Torres Small (NM).

The increased number of vulnerable Democrats combined with a significant number of Republican retirements means that Republican women have more opportunities to run. However, they need to win their primaries. The first female head of recruitment for the NRCC, Elise Stefanik, reported recruiting more than 100 female candidates in the 2018 cycle, but only 35 non-incumbent Republican women made it through their House primaries and just one new Republican woman, Carol Miller (WV), won in the general election. Stefanik has now dedicated her leadership PAC to electing women, but the first women endorsed are all running in competitive or Democratic leaning seats. These races might be difficult to win with President Trump on the ballot, particularly the seats in suburban areas with higher numbers of college-educated women voters who strongly disapprove of President Trump. Similarly, in the Senate, many of the Republicans' most vulnerable seats in the 2020 election are held by women, including Susan Collins (ME), Martha McSally (AZ), and Joni Ernst (IA). All three were outraised by their challengers in the most recent fundraising reports. In 2020, it remains an open question whether we will see an increase or a drop in women’s representation across the two parties and in the House and Senate. 

I’m keeping an eye out for double standards with men and women candidates.
Caroline Heldman, Professor of Political Science
Occidental College

Moving into the thick of the 2020 election, I am keeping an eye out for double standards with men and women candidates. Are women being judged on “likeability” while men get a pass? Are “scandals” sticking to female candidates that wouldn’t be news for male candidates? Are men with very little experience being treated as competent as women candidates with extensive experience? Sexist assumptions about women running for the presidency typically come in subtle but powerful forms that hinder their candidacies.

There has never been a woman governor or U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania, but if the pool of women with strong political experience continues to grow year after year, those ceilings shouldn’t hold for long.
Jennie Sweet-Cushman, Assistant Professor of Political Science
Assistant Director, Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics
Chatham University

While the country is captivated by the presidential election in 2020, I’ll be watching more than just where Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes wind up. In 2018, the state saw the largest increase in the number of women running and winning congressional and state legislative races of anywhere in the country. This growth is crucial if a diverse pool of women will be consistently positioned in the political pipeline to higher-level office, a feature we know is critical to women’s political representation. Pennsylvania, like a handful of other states, continues to have a glass ceiling that has excluded women from holding higher levels of office. There has never been a woman governor or U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania, but if the pool of women with strong political experience continues to grow year after year, those ceilings shouldn’t hold for long.

Will Elizabeth Warren be celebrated as a great orator?
Christine Jahnke, Founder
Positive Communications

During the October debate, a confrontation illustrated how some still feel when a woman speaks out forcefully. It occurred when Joe Biden pointed a finger at Elizabeth Warren and insisted, “I got you votes” for the consumer protection bureau she proposed and fought for. Biden had earlier stated he was the only candidate who had “gotten anything really big done.” Warren ignored the outburst the way a mother might handle a willful child and responded that she wasn’t afraid to make big, structural change.  

Warren is continuously redefining what leadership looks and sounds like. It’s exciting how she energizes huge crowds with policy solutions, not bombastic rhetoric. It’s funny when she makes light of a question about marriage stereotypes, not a reason for alarm. It’s telling when her personal recounting of pregnancy discrimination is initially disbelieved causing other women to share similar experiences.

What’s not surprising is that tech executives, bankers, and political foes don’t engage her on substance, instead they plot to undermine her credibility. These defenders of the status quo have had their say for too long. Warren calls out corruption while speaking empathetically for those who’ve lost the most. And voters are listening.

That’s the mark of a great orator.

Not more of the same.
Ivy Cargile, Assistant Professor of Political Science
California State University – Bakersfield

Many of the women of color who ran in 2018 are disrupters! They ran for political office despite being told to wait their turn, despite the fact that they would be running against popular incumbents, despite not having the support of their political party. In 2020 what will the political landscape look like? It is set to be quite similar with both gender diversity and racial/ethnic diversity. In 2020, it will be women, and women of color, who will make up a large contingency of challengers looking to, once again, disrupt the status quo. Similar to their predecessors from 2018, this group of women will not wait their turn and are already mounting campaigns in order to head to the halls of government and work to create a political body that is truly representative of the U.S. electorate.

A quick scan of some of the women who are already positioning themselves to run provides some insight. In the Illinois 14th Congressional District, Catalina Lauf, a Republican Latina, is seeking to challenge and replace Representative Lauren Underwood (D-IL). Similarly, Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, M.J. Hegar, Sema Hernandez, and Amanda Edwards are just some of the women who will be competing to challenge incumbent Republican Senator John Cornyn in Texas. These are just two examples of races that will make 2020 both competitive and exciting because of the diverse representation it might yield.

We are investigating the sexual harassment policies affiliated with 2020 presidential campaigns.
Anna Mitchell Mahoney, Adm. Assistant Professor of Women's Political Leadership, Newcomb Institute
Tulane University
Carly Shaffer, Newcomb Scholar/Tulane UndergraduateTulane University

The #MeToo conversation has grown to include a deeper analysis of structural cover-ups related to claims of sexual harassment and the lack of accountability for high-profile offenders. As we turn to consider the work cultures in which sexual harassment has been allowed to flourish, we are investigating the sexual harassment policies affiliated with 2020 presidential campaigns. Presidential candidates should not only be asked to discuss their policy solutions to this problem, but to account for their own organizational responses.

We have contacted all Democratic and Republican campaigns directly to request copies of their official policies, and we are currently awaiting their responses. So far, news coverage suggests a handful of campaigns (most notably Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Sanders, and Trump) have or had robust policies. They tout(ed) staff handbooks with explicitly printed rules, mandatory training sessions for new hires, and easy access to supervisors and hotlines for complaint filing purposes. These organizations boast(ed) zero tolerance for any and all forms of sexual harassment, an encouraging sign for the future of political campaigns. We will continue to watch, if more accusations surface, that these policies are actually adhered to and if sexual harassment and its response continues to be a polarizing issue for political parties.

Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden 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).