Congressional and statewide primaries were held on Tuesday in five states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, and Texas. Many races in California remain too close to call, so this post will be updated as results are determined. Full context about women in the 2020 elections, including candidate lists, summaries, and historical comparisons, is available via the Center for American Women and Politics’ (CAWP) Election Watch.
Among the most notable results for women:
- North Carolina has the potential to increase the representation of women in its congressional delegation. 2 (2D) women are nominees in districts currently represented by men that are favored to flip from Republican to Democratic control, and 1 (1R) woman advanced to a runoff in the solidly Republican district currently represented by Mark Meadows.
- Though a large number of races remain too close to call in Texas, the state also has the potential to increase the number of women it sends to Congress. In the 24th congressional district, the race to replace retiring Kenny Marchant will be decided between two women, and 1 (1D) woman is running in an open seat race to replace a retiring congressman in a district that is rated as leaning Democrat.
- Arkansas currently has zero women in its congressional delegation. While two Democratic women advanced in uncontested primaries, those districts are rated solidly Republican, meaning Arkansas will almost assuredly continue to have no women in Congress in 2021.
- The lone Republican woman in the Alabama congressional delegation, Martha Roby, is retiring this year and the women running for the Republican nomination were defeated in the primary. As a result, Alabama will send no GOP women to Congress in 2021. (Current Democratic congresswoman from Alabama Terri Sewell ran unopposed in the primary and has no Republican opponent in the fall.)
- Many races in California remain too close to call, but women are currently 34 of 98 (34.7%) nominees for U.S. House that have already been determined as of March 24th.
- Just 1 (1R) woman – Ruth Page Nelson – was on the ballot for the U.S. Senate in Alabama this year. She lost her bid to challenge Democratic incumbent Senator Doug Jones in November.
- 2 (2D) women have served in the U.S. Senate from Alabama, though both were appointed to fill a vacancy caused by resignation or death, and neither served more than one year: Maryon Pittman Allen (D) served from June to November 1978 and Dixie Bibb Graves (D) served from August 1937 to January 1938. No woman has been elected to the Senate from Alabama.
Women are currently 2 (1D, 1R) of 7 members of the Alabama delegation to the U.S. House.
Women candidates secured 3 of 8 (37.5%) major-party nominations for U.S. House seats decided in Alabama on March 3rd. Women are 3 of 4 (75%) Democratic nominees for U.S. House and 0 of 4 (0%) Republican nominees for the U.S. House in Alabama. Of the 6 (2D, 4R) candidates advancing to runoff elections on March 31, 2020, 1 (1D) – Kiani Gardner (D, AL-01) – is a woman.
- Incumbent Representative Martha Roby (R), one of just 13 Republican women in the U.S. House, did not run for re-election this year in Alabama’s 2nd congressional district. While 2 Republican women sought the nomination to replace her this year, they were defeated in the primary election. As a result, Alabama is sure to have no Republican women in Congress in 2021.
- Phyllis Harvey-Hall (D) won the Democratic nomination in Alabama’s 2nd congressional district, an open seat created by Roby’s retirement that strongly favors the Republican nominee according to Cook Political Report.
- Incumbent Representative Terri Sewell (D) was unopposed in her primary bid for re-election in Alabama’s 7th congressional district. She has no Republican opponent this fall.
- Adia Winfrey (D) was unopposed in her bid for the Democratic nomination in Alabama’s 3rd congressional district. She will challenge incumbent Representative Mike Rogers (R) in a general election in which Rogers is strongly favored to win according to Cook Political Report.
All 3 (3D) women nominees for the U.S. House from Alabama are Black women. In addition, Kiani Gardner (D) – who will advance to the Democratic primary runoff election in Alabama’s 1st congressional district – identifies as Asian/Pacific Islander.
Statewide Elected Executive Office
Just one statewide elected executive office is up for election in Alabama in 2020: Public Service Commissioner. Incumbent Twinkle Cavanaugh (R) won the Republican nomination for re-election. She will be challenged by Laura Casey (D), who won the Democratic nomination on March 3rd.
While women will be 100% of major-party candidates for statewide elected executive office on the ballot in November, they are just 2 of 10 (20%) statewide elected executive officeholders in Alabama today: Governor Kay Ivey (R) and Public Service Commission Twinkle Cavanaugh (R).
There were no women candidates for the U.S. Senate in Arkansas this year. Incumbent Senator Tom Cotton ran uncontested in the Republican primary and Democrats did not put forth any candidate to be Cotton’s challenger in the general election.
2 (2D) women have served in the U.S. Senate from Arkansas: Blanche Lincoln (D) served from 1999 to 2010 and Hattie Wyatt Caraway (D) served from 1931 to 1944. While first appointed to office, Caraway became the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932.
Arkansas is currently one of 12 states with no women in their congressional delegation. No woman has served in the U.S. House from Arkansas since Blanche Lincoln’s term ended in January 1997.
In 2020, Women are 2 of 7 (28.6%) major-party nominees for U.S. House in Arkansas, including 2 of 3 (66.7%) Democrats and 0 of 4 (0%) Republicans. Each of these U.S. House primary candidates was uncontested in their bids for nomination.
- The 2 Democratic women nominees will challenge Republican incumbents in districts deemed to be solidly Republican by Cook Political Report, including: Joyce Elliott (AR-02) and Celeste Williams (AR-03).
Joyce Elliott (D, AR-02), who identifies as Black, is the only woman of color nominee for the U.S. House. Arkansas has never sent a woman of color to the U.S. Congress.
There are no statewide executive elections in Arkansas this year.
Women are currently 17 (17D) of 53 members of the CA delegation to the U.S. House.
As of March 24th, women are 34 of 98 (34.7%) nominees for U.S. House already selected in California, but even more women candidates are in contests that have not yet been called. CAWP will update this post as results are confirmed. Of the 34 (24D, 10R) nominees already selected, 16 (16D) are incumbents, 4 (4D) will run for open seats, and 14 (4D, 10R) will run as challengers to incumbents in November.
- Of the 14 (4D, 10R) women challengers already nominated, only 2 (2R) are running in districts deemed competitive by Cook Political Report: Young Kim (R, CA-39), who was the Republican nominee in 2018 and lost by 3 points to Democrat Gil Cisneros, and Michelle Steel (R, CA-48). Both women identify as Asian/Pacific Islander.
- In the 4 open seat contests where women are running (CA-08, CA-25, CA-50, CA-53), 4 (4D) women candidates have secured a nomination thus far; Sara Jacobs (D) and Georgette Gomez (D) have advanced to the general election to replace Representative Susan Davis in California's 53rd congressional district, ensuring that a woman will fill that seat. Jacobs ran for the U.S. House in 2018 in California's 49th congressional district, but did not advance to the general election. In California's 25th congressional district, current California Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D) has advanced to the general election to fill the vacancy created by Representative Katie Hill's (D) resignation last year. Both women are running in districts that favor Democrats. Christine Bubser (D) has advanced to the general election in California's 8th congressional district, which currently favors Republicans according to Cook Political Report.
- Results are still too close to call for remaining women candidates in open seat contests.
- 2 (1D, 1R) women were on the ballot for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina this year. They were both defeated in their respective party primaries. Incumbent Senator Thom Tillis (R) will run for re-election in November in a contest currently deemed leaning Republican by Cook Political Report.
- Just two women have served in the U.S. Senate from North Carolina: Kay Hagan (D) served from 2009-2014 and Elizabeth Dole (R) served from 2003-2008.
Women are currently 2 (1D, 1R) of 13 members of the North Carolina delegation to the U.S. House.
Women are 7 of 25 (28%) major-party nominees for U.S. House already selected in North Carolina, including 5 of 13 (38.5%) Democrats and 2 of 12 (16.7%). One more woman – Lynda Bennett – has advanced to the runoff Republican primary election on May 12th. 5 (3D, 2R) women House candidates were unsuccessful in their primary bids for the U.S. House.
- Both incumbent women – Republican Virginia Foxx (NC-05) and Democrat Alma Adams (NC-12) will be nominees in November and both are strongly favored for re-election according to Cook Political Report.
- 2 (2D) women are nominees for open seats in two districts (NC-02 and NC-06) that are currently favored to flip from Republican to Democrat in November. Both Democratic women nominees – Kathy Manning (NC-06) and Deborah Ross (NC-02) – previously ran and won nominations for the U.S. Congress, but were unsuccessful in general elections.
- 3 (2D, 1R) women will challenge incumbents in districts where those incumbents are favored to win according to Cook Political Report: Sandra Smith (R, NC-01), Patricia Timmons-Goodson (D, NC-08), and Cynthia Wallace (D, NC-09).
- In North Carolina’s 11th District, Lynda Bennett (R) was 1 of 2 women in a 12-person field for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Representative Mark Meadows (R). She will advance to the runoff election in May, already having the endorsement of the incumbent. This race is currently rated as solidly Republican by Cook Political Report, indicating another potential gain for women in North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
Of the 7 women who are major-party nominees for the U.S. House from North Carolina, 3 (3D) are Black women: incumbent Representative Alma Adams (NC-12), Cynthia Wallace (NC-09), and Patricia Timmons-Goodson (NC-08).
Statewide Elected Executive Office
Women are currently 3 (2D, 1R) of 10 statewide elected executive officials in North Carolina. All 10 offices, including governor, are up for election in 2020.
This year, women are 6 of 19 (31.6%) major-party nominees for statewide elected executive offices already selected in North Carolina, including 5 of 9 (55.6%) Democrats and 1 of 10 (10%) Republicans. 2 (2D) more women will compete in the Democratic primary runoff election for Lieutenant Governor. 7 (2D, 5R) women candidates were unsuccessful in their primary bids for statewide elected executive offices.
- Both Democratic incumbents will run for re-election in November; Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) was uncontested in the primary State Auditor Beth Wood (D) won the Democratic nomination.
- Republican Incumbent Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry (R) did not run for re-election this year. She is the only Republican woman ever elected to statewide executive office in North Carolina.
- 3 (2D, 1R) women nominees will run for open statewide elected executive offices:
- Jessica Holmes (D) was uncontested as the Democratic candidate for Commissioner of Labor.
- Jen Mangrum (D) and Catherine Truitt (R) will compete against each other this fall to become Superintendent of Public Instruction.
- Jenna Wadsworth (D) won the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler (R) in November.
Of the 6 women who are major-party nominees for the statewide elected executive offices in North Carolina, 1 (1D) is a Black woman: Jessica Holmes (D), nominee for Commissioner of Labor. Yvonne Lewis Holley (D), who has advanced to the runoff to be the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor, is also Black. North Carolina has never elected a woman of color to statewide elected office.
MJ Hegar has advanced to a runoff election for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate from Texas. The winner of the runoff will challenge incumbent Senator John Cornyn (R) in November in a contest deemed solidly Republican by Cook Political Report.
- Just one woman has served in the U.S. Senate from Texas: Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R) served from 1993-2012. Hegar would be the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate from Texas.
- Hegar was the Democratic nominee in Texas’ 31s congressional district in 2018; she lost to incumbent Representative John Carter by 3 points in the general election.
Women are currently 6 (5D, 1R) of 36 members of the Texas delegation to the U.S. House.
Women are 18 of 56 (32.1%) nominees for U.S. House already selected in Texas and another 12 (7D, 5R) women have advanced to runoff elections on May 26, 2020. Of the 18 (13D, 5R) nominees selected, 6 (5D, 1R) are incumbents, 10 (7D, 3R) will run as challengers to incumbents, and 2 (1D, 1R) will run for open seats in November. 36 (14D, 22R) women House candidates were unsuccessful in their primary bids for the U.S. House.
- Gina Ortiz Jones is the Democratic nominee in Texas’ 23rd congressional district, where she narrowly lost to incumbent Representative Will Hurd (R) in 2018. This year, the seat is open and is currently rated as leaning Democratic in Jones’ favor. If elected in November, Jones would be the first Asian/Pacific Islander woman in Congress from Texas as well as the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress from Texas.
- Even with a Democratic primary runoff yet to be held, we know that the general election contest for Texas’ 24th congressional district will be between 2 women. Beth Van Duyne (R) has secured the Republican nomination and 2 women will compete for the Democratic nomination in May. This open seat, though currently held by a Republican, is deemed a toss-up by Cook Political Report.
- Of the 10 (7D, 3R) women candidates already nominated to challenge incumbents in November, only 2 (1D, 1R) are running in a contest currently deemed competitive by Cook Political Report. Former state senator and gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis (D) is will challenge incumbent Representative Chip Roy (R) in Texas’ 21st congressional district, which is currently rated as leaning Republican. Genevieve Collins (R) will challenge incumbent Representative Colin Allred (D) in Texas’ 32nd congressional district, which is currently rated as leaning Democrat.
Statewide Elected Executive Office
Cristi Craddick (R) is the only woman currently holding statewide elected executive office in Texas. She is 1 of 3 railroad commissioners. There are 9 total statewide elected executive offices in Texas.
This year, one of the three railroad commissioner offices, not Craddick’s, is up for election. It is the only statewide executive election in Texas in 2020. One woman – Chrysta Castañeda – has advanced to the Democratic primary runoff election on May 26, 2020. If successful, she will oppose Jim Wright, who defeated incumbent Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton in the Republican primary election.
For primary results summaries from other states and full context about women in the 2020 elections, including candidate lists, summaries, and historical comparisons, see CAWP’s Election Watch page.
Tomorrow is Super Tuesday and, in addition to the presidential contest, we'll see the first congressional and statewide primaries of the 2020 election cycle. CAWP wanted to get some insights on the Super Tuesday contests, so we called on a group of expert scholars and practitioners to tell us what they're watching for tomorrow, as part of our series of expert outlook compilation posts that we'll be sharing throughout the 2020 elections. Our group of experts were provided this prompt:
Super Tuesday marks not only a key moment in the presidential primary, but also the first congressional and statewide primary elections of the 2020 cycle (with congressional primaries held in AL, AR, CA, NC, and TX). What gender and intersectional dynamics or stories will you be watching on Super Tuesday?
Here's what we heard back.
The race gap in the gender gap. - Cate Gormley, Vice President of Lake Research Partners
I can’t underscore how important women voters are in 2020. But I’m not interested in “women” as a whole, I’m keeping my eye on how women across races compare to their male counterparts.
With a crowded field and only 4% of delegates pledged to candidates so far, Super Tuesday is going to matter a lot. Using polling data from the past four weeks from YouGov, the Economist is tracking candidate support by demographic groups. There are clear patterns of support among men and women for Senator Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Elizabeth Warren; there is less of a race-by-gender gap for other candidates.
Sanders has more support from men than women, and he’s doing better among white and Black men than white and Black women. He is also doing better with men than women who are neither white, Black, nor Latinx. It looks like Latinx voters are a core constituency for Sanders, but there is little difference between Latinx men and women. I’m keeping my eye on Texas and California, states with sizable Latinx populations.
Biden has more support from women than men and more support among Black voters than white or Latinx voters. Black women are more likely than Black men to support Biden. Will Black women deliver delegates to Biden across the South?
Warren’s support tends to come from white voters more than Black or Latinx voters, and from women more than men. Indeed, white women are more likely than white men to support Elizabeth Warren. After her strong debate performances over the past few weeks, are more white women shifting to Warren?
Democratic primary voters are doing all sorts of calculations to figure out which candidate both aligns with their values and can beat Trump in November. Across races, men and women are coming up with different solutions.
I’ll be looking for how the candidates signal to Black women voters. - Nadia E. Brown, Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University
Democrats are rightfully paying attention to Black women as key voters this election cycle. Indeed, Black women are the most active voting bloc within the American electorate. Black women overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates. For example, the 2018 midterm elections saw Black women support Democrats at a rate of 94% compared to 84% of Black men. Indeed, it is Black women who led efforts to mobilize family and friends which lead to increased voter turnout in 2018. Black women are expected to cast nearly 11 million votes in 2020. Attention to the “Black vote” is incomplete if one does not include a gendered analysis.
Elizabeth Warren, more than any other candidate, seems to understand the need to engage with Black women on the issues and policies that impact them the most. Black Women for Warren and #BWFWarren on twitter explicate why transactional politics always leave Black women behind. Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Mayor of San Antonio, was another Democratic presidential candidate who sought to woo Black voters by paying special attention to how the lived experiences of Black women influenced their policy preferences. Castro’s campaign manager was Maya Rupert, an African American woman, who stressed that Democratic Black women vote for progressive policies that not only impact them but other marginalized populations.
My published research with collaborators Christina E. Bejarano, Sarah Allen Gershon and Celeste Montoya find that Blck women have the highest level of intersectional linked fate but are least likely to prefer out-group candidates. However, Black women did not readily support Kamala Harris or Cory Booker as they sought the Democratic nomination. How are candidates talking about Black women, not just an appeal to a monolithic Black voter, through an intersectional articulation of policy stances? I'm watching the nuanced returns of the Super Tuesday contests to learn if Black women voters - a key demographic group for Democrats - are supporting candidates who directly speak to the issues that they prioritize.
Black women’s candidate calculus. - Glynda Carr, President and CEO of Higher Heights for America
Black women account for a decisive percentage of the electorate in several of the fourteen states and the U.S territory up for grabs on Super Tuesday. Their historically high turnout at the polls means everyone is watching to see what effect their votes have on creating a path for the Democratic presidential nominee.
To be sure, Black women’s votes will be decisive. We expect to see consistent, committed voter turnout. But we’re watching to see whether they show up en masse for a single candidate the way most campaigns and analysts gamble they will – no matter how much they’re reminded Black women voters are not a monolith. Many Black women feel uninspired and unrepresented by the current crop of candidates, so they’re engaged in a complex game of math to choose the one who offers the best possibility for elevating and protecting their families, communities, and them. How that equation functions may well depend on age, geography, and economic experience. The common thread, however, is Black women voters want to select a candidate who can win: someone who can offer more responsive, less volatile leadership at home and abroad.
In addition to the presidential primaries, we’re keeping an eye on how Black women candidates perform in states with down-ballot races this Super Tuesday. Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina and Texas will each have local, state, and federal candidates on their primary ballots. Twenty-two Black women are on the ballot running for federal and statewide offices in North Carolina and Texas, so we’ll be watching to see how they do.
Watching Latinas in California and Texas. - Anna Sampaio, Associate Professor and Chair of Department of Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University
How will Latina support for the Democratic candidates shape outcome of elections on Super Tuesday, especially in delegate rich states of California and Texas? Latina/o/x voting behavior indicates that Latinas, more than Latinos, drive increases in registration and turnout across all national origin groups within the Latina/o/x electorate. With over 32 million eligible voters in 2020, Latinas/os/xs are projected to become the largest minority voting population this year, making their voting preferences even more significant in states like California and Texas, where they comprise approximately 40% of the population and are likely to account for around 20% of the electorate.
In addition, Latinas historically favor more liberal candidates and policies than Latino males, leading to an increasing gender gap in the population and favoring more liberal Democrats in the past presidential elections. Recognizing the potential power Latinas hold, candidates such as Elizabeth Warren launched a targeted campaign entitled “Latinas Fight, Latinas Win,” while the Sanders campaign invested heavily in Latina/o/x outreach and mobilization this election season. The impact of these investments will be measured most strongly on Tuesday in California and Texas and are likely to either cement or re-direct momentum in the remaining primaries.
I’ll be interested in the youth vote on Super Tuesday. Will they turnout, how will they vote, and will there be any significant gender and racial differences among Gen Z voters? – Melissa Deckman, Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Washington College
Much attention has been paid to the age gap among Democratic primary voters this presidential primary season, with Senator Bernie Sanders enjoying a much greater lead among young voters. I’m anxious to see, however, whether any particular gender gaps emerge among the newest generation of voters, Gen Z Americans, born after 1996. Will the presence of Elizabeth Warren on the ballot potentially siphon any young female voters? Will the youth vote differ in the South and Midwest from other states? Will the Gen Z vote also be marked by racial differences, given it is the most ethnically and racially diverse cohort of voters? And will the youth vote actually materialize in any great number? For instance, in the 2018 midterms, turnout among college women more than doubled from 2014 to 43 percent. I’m anxious to see to what extent Gen Z, and relatedly, Millennial voters, will impact the voting results compared with older Americans on Tuesday.
The age gap in the gender gap. - Mary-Kate Lizotte, Associate Professor in the Master of Public Administration program at Augusta University
If the only voters were women, we would consistently have Democratic presidents. This conceals the fact that not all women, even all Democratic women, share the same preferences. The Democratic presidential primary is an opportunity to see how subgroups of women differ in their vote choice. One prominent difference likely to be evident on Super Tuesday is that younger and older women will likely vote for different Democratic candidates. Similarly to the 2008 Democratic primary when younger women voted for Obama and older women voted for Clinton, we will likely see a similar split with younger women voting for Sanders and older women voting for Warren. Perhaps this divide between younger and older women is due to candidate messaging with younger women drawn to Sanders’ “revolution.” Identity politics assuredly contributes to this divide as well with older women in the Democratic Party yearning to see a woman elected to the White House. Ideology may also be a factor with younger women tending to be more liberal than older women in their policy positions. Ultimately, it will be vital for the Democratic presidential nominee to shore up support among all subgroups of women in the Democratic Party.
How will the presidential line affect strategic voting for women in down-ballot races? - Melissa Michelson, Professor of Political Science at Menlo College
Super Tuesday poses the last chance for someone other than a straight White man to generate enough momentum to take the Democratic presidential nomination. The one gay candidate, Pete Buttigieg, has dropped out, and the women candidates failed in most previous contests to reach viability to win delegates. I’ll be watching to see just how many votes Warren gets outside of her home state of Massachusetts. Overall, however, I expect to see an ongoing mismatch between how many voters say they would be comfortable voting for a woman for president and how much support these specific women get at the polls. I'm also keeping a close eye on Texas, where it seems very likely that a woman will take the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate race, although perhaps only after a May runoff. There’s a huge amount of voter uncertainty in that race and I think many voters will go to the polls only thinking about the presidential race. This might help the women in the race, if voters choosing a male candidate for president think that voting for a woman for Senate helps balance out their choices.
Similarly, and more locally, I'm watching the California State Senate race in the 13th district, where there’s a large pool of candidates running for termed out Democrat Jerry Hill’s seat. One candidate – Josh Becker – is endorsed by Hill, Governor Gavin Newsom, and other prominent Democrats. But in a crowded race with multiple strong candidates and plenty of outside money – and again with the thought that voters might try to balance out their desire to support women while voting for a male candidate for the Democratic nominee, it’s possible that his opponent in November (thanks to California’s unique top-two-vote-getter primary system) will be a woman. There are two strong women in the primary: Sally Lieber and Shelly Masur. Overall, in both races I'm expecting the women candidates to outperform their polling numbers as voters make strategic choices in the presidential primary.
Will there be a correlation between women’s increased political participation, especially in fundraising, and who secures delegates on Super Tuesday? - Grace Haley, Gender and Race Researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics
Bernie Sanders, the candidate with the most money coming from women, is leading the race going into Super Tuesday. However, only one-third of his itemized contributions come from women donors. What are the implications for a candidate to have both the most contributions from women and a notable gender gap in the percent of dollars coming from women?
The growth of political organizing by women since the 2016 elections, as evidenced by their increased political giving, is important to watch. Over 2 million women have already donated to the 2020 election, which is a record breaking feat. But for every dollar we've tracked that goes to a presidential candidate, about 56 cents comes from a man and 44 cents from a woman.
Most of the candidates left in the race are the candidates who’ve consistently had most of their money coming from men, and the two top candidates (Biden, Sanders) get the majority of their funds from men. Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate left in the race who has raised even funds from both women and men. Men are in sum giving more, and giving more to the candidates who are men.
Women, and men, are not a monolithic fundraising bloc. And women, especially women of color, have historically been politically active in a myriad of ways outside of the money-in-politics realm. Like all voting blocs, they have policy perspectives and priorities that extend beyond representation. So when looking at fundraising patterns, I’m thinking: at what cost does fundraising prowess translate to political power, and to whose advantage and whose detriment?
Many Virginia female state legislators are campaigning for their preferred Democratic presidential nominee, but not the three women in Virginia’s congressional delegation – Reps. Luria, Spanberger, and Wexton - who face tough re-election contests in 2020 - Rosalyn Cooperman, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Mary Washington
In recent visits to Virginia ahead of Tuesday’s Super Tuesday primary, Democratic presidential candidates have relied on female state legislators to fire up crowds and secure votes. At a rally in Northern Virginia on February 13, State Delegate Kathy Tran (VA-42) and State Senator Ghazala Hashmi (VA-10) each spoke on behalf of Senator Elizabeth Warren and Hashmi introduced Warren as a “fighter for social justice.”
When Mayor Mike Bloomberg appeared in Richmond a few days later at the Democratic Party of Virginia’s Blue Commonwealth Gala, Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (VA-41) praised Bloomberg’s “years of commitment” to state Democrats. Bloomberg has also been endorsed by Virginia State Delegates Laschrecse Aird (VA-63) and Nancy Guy (VA-83) as well as Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Senator Bernie Sanders is scheduled to visit Virginia this weekend; State Delegate Elizabeth Guzman (VA-31) has endorsed Sanders.
Although many Virginia female Democratic state legislators are happy to serve as surrogates for their preferred presidential contender, the three women Democratic Members of Congress from Virginia, Representatives Elaine Luria (VA-2), Abigail Spanberger (VA-7), and Jennifer Wexton (VA-10), each of whom defeated Republican incumbents in the 2018 congressional midterms and face competitive re-election bids in 2020, have been less visible in their support for a Democratic presidential nominee.
Representative Luria, who defeated Rep. Scott Taylor with 51.1% of the vote, endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in January 2020. Representatives Spanberger, who defeated Rep. Dave Brat with 50.3% of the vote, and Wexton, who defeated Rep. Barbara Comstock with 56% of the vote, have not endorsed any of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, though Wexton has indicated she would not be voting for Sanders in the 2020 Virginia primary. For these three freshman representatives, whose races have all been identified as competitive by Cook Political Report, a win for Bernie Sanders in Virginia and a strong performance by Sanders in other Super Tuesday states would certainly complicate their re-election bids and their work thus far to establish themselves as moderate Democrats.
How will presidential results impact down-ballot races? - Dianne Bystrom, Director Emerita of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University
I will be looking for any interesting correlations between the Democratic women who win their congressional primaries and the Democratic presidential candidates who win in their states on Super Tuesday. In states that Bernie Sanders wins, will self-identified progressive Democratic women do well? Or can a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist win at the top of the ticket, while Democratic candidates who better fit the profile of the congressional district win their down-ballot primaries? Will a strong turnout of women voters to support Elizabeth Warren affect Democratic women running for other offices? Warren has said she is relying on women voters on Super Tuesday. Her campaign and its supporters seem to be appealing directly to college-educated women who are angry about gendered treatment by the media, especially about her electability, different standards to which she is held on providing policy details, and/or their perception that she is being erased from coverage. If these women turn out for Warren in certain states, will that impact women running congressional and statewide races? Finally, I'll be looking at how the 93 women – 49 Democrats and 44 Republicans –running against other women in contested primaries for the U.S. House in Alabama, California, North Carolina, and Texas fare.
We talk about down-ballot effects of the candidates for president, but what about up-ballot effects of candidates at the state and congressional levels? - Erin Cassese, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations
There’s been some discussion that selection of the “wrong” presidential nominee could hurt Democratic candidates across the board in down ballot races, ostensibly by depressing interest and enthusiasm around the 2020 elections or by reducing confidence in the party.
In the recent South Carolina debate, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg gave voice to these fears in an attack on front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders:
“We just cannot afford some of this stuff people talk about. If you keep on going, we will elect Bernie. Bernie will lose to Donald Trump. And Donald Trump and the House and the Senate and some of the statehouses will all go red. And then, between gerrymandering and appointing judges, for the next 20 or 30 years, we're going to live with this catastrophe.”
This top-down perspective on voter behavior is perhaps a bit hyperbolic, and it overlooks the potential for countervailing campaign dynamics at lower levels of office. Voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was at its highest rate in the past 100 years. The elections were record breaking in terms of candidate diversity in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion, with many of these candidates earning national attention and drawing out-of-district fundraising support. For instance, in 2018, Democratic women outperformed male competitors to make up almost half of all Democratic nominees for Congress. For open seats, women’s win rate was much higher than men’s, which many interpreted as a sign that women’s candidacies were resonating with Democratic voters. But with the media focused on a crowded primary field, it’s been hard for rising stars at the state level to break through. And selection of the presidential nominee is, of course, critical. Still, voter mobilization will also turn on engagement with down-ballot races, and Super Tuesday should provide us with some fresh insights about the talent pool for both parties, in these congressional primaries.
How will Super Tuesday results impact media narratives about electability and viability? - Kathleen Dolan, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin
As Super Tuesday plays out, I’ll be looking to see how the women and men running for president are evaluated as the dust settles. At the end of the day on March 3rd, voters in 15 states will have made their choices, giving us (potentially) a clearer picture of who remains viable for the Democratic nomination. The pressure for candidates to drop out has begun to build and Super Tuesday results will heighten the call for consolidation in the field. If there is no single candidate who sweeps multiple states, if there are mixed results across the 14 states, what will these calls for consolidation look like and how will candidates be treated? If Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren have similar net results, will the calls for them to drop out be equally focused? Will the media continue to ignore Elizabeth Warren unless she wins multiple states on Super Tuesday? Will Michael Bloomberg’s spending power give him “viability” that his recent debate performances don’t necessarily support? If Bernie Sanders runs the table, will these considerations be irrelevant? In a cycle when the women candidates have faced a more challenging media environment and greater questions about their viability, it will be important to take stock of whose candidacies are still seen to have a feasible chance of continuing and who will be pressured to pack it in.
I’ll be watching Warren...but also the diverse women vying for the Senate in North Carolina and Texas. - Jennifer M. Piscopo, Associate Professor of Politics at Occidental College
All eyes are on the presidential primary, as Elizabeth Warren fights from behind to win delegates in key states like California, Texas, and North Carolina. Voters appear unconvinced by Warren’s policy wonkishness, warming instead to Sanders’ firebrand style and, while he was still in the race, Buttigieg’s inspirational words. Yet such strategies might never have worked for Warren, given gender stereotypes that view yelling women as aggressive and reassuring women as patronizing.
Warren is not the only woman underdog. Democrats have a chance to flip a Senate seat in North Carolina, given incumbent senator Thom Tillis’s rock-bottom favorability ratings. The primary race is between former state senator Cal Cunningham and current state senator Erica Smith. Cunningham is the establishment favorite. A veteran Democrat, he’s dramatically out fundraised Smith. But polls show the more progressive Smith beating Tillis by a ten point margin – and she would be the first Black woman elected statewide in North Carolina.
In Texas, a dozen Democratic candidates are vying to challenge Republican Senator John Cornyn in the general election. Women fill the crowded field: MJ Hegar, an air force veteran who narrowly lost her 2018 house race; Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a Latina labor organizer; Annie Garcia, a self-described “one fed-up Mama”; and Amanda Edwards, a Black city councilwoman from Houston. Hegar’s name recognition has given her the edge. Her website features her raising her kids – but also flying choppers, riding motorbikes, and suing the Pentagon over women’s combat exclusion. At least at the state level, there’s many more ways to be a woman candidate.
Will Democratic candidates disrupt Trump’s deployment of gender? - Dan Cassino, Associate Professor of Political Science at Farleigh Dickinson University
While we’re waiting for the Super Tuesday returns, I’m going to be paying attention to the gendered narratives being used to describe the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, as it’s likely to tell us a lot about how November’s election is shaping up. In past elections, Democratic nominees – both male and female – have been characterized as having overly feminine traits. For instance, 2004 nominee John Kerry, a decorated veteran, was shown wind-surfing, rather than engaging in traditionally masculine sports, and was decried as too soft to protect the country. Wariness about such attacks seems to have led 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton to stress traits that are generally perceived as masculine, such as toughness, rather than policies and traits that could be perceived as feminine. With an incumbent President who’s made a political career out of claiming a monopoly on masculinity, will the Democratic candidates be presented as masculine rivals, as when Joe Biden has talked about beating the hell out of the President, or the way in which Michael Bloomberg has belittled Trump’s wealth acumen? Or will we see the race framed as a fight between masculine and feminine traits, with a Democratic nominee who’s looking to bring compromise and moderation? Whether the November election is a race between a man and a woman or not, it’s likely to be a race about gender, and the framing of that race starts now.
Increasing diversity, and ideological diversity, of the women in Congress. - Michele Swers, Professor Department of Government, Georgetown University
The Super Tuesday congressional primaries will provide the first indication of whether Democrats will continue to add more women of color to their ranks, as they did in 2018. The Tuesday contests will also determine whether Republicans will take steps to build up their ranks of female members after the 2018 losses left them with only 13 female House incumbents. Texas and California will be particularly important states to watch. In 2018, Texas elected its first two Latina women to Congress. This cycle, Asian American Gina Ortiz Jones has a good chance of winning an open seat vacated by Will Hurd, the incumbent who narrowly defeated her in 2018. Two Latina candidates with EMILY’s List endorsements are engaged in competitive primaries. Candace Valenzuela is competing for an open seat, while Jessica Cisneros is challenging Democratic incumbent Henry Cuellar from the left with an endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who won a similar primary race against an incumbent in 2018.
For Republicans to elect more women they need female nominees to emerge in safe seats such as Alabama’s 2nd congressional district where Jessica Taylor, a pro-life small businesswoman endorsed by Susan B Anthony List is one of 7 Republicans competing to replace retiring representative Martha Roby. However, there are few Republican women contesting the safe seats being vacated by retiring Republicans in Texas. Instead, most of the Republican women running in primaries in California and Texas are in swing districts and will face competitive races against Democrats if they advance to the general election. These types of seats are harder to keep, when wave elections sweep against the member’s party, making it harder for these Republican women to build the seniority that leads to power in Congress.
Women of Color and Statewide Executive Elective Office - Kira Sanbonmatsu, Professor of Political Science and Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University
I will be watching to see if any women of color move forward as major party nominees for statewide executive offices such as governor, lieutenant governor, or secretary of state. Looking back to 2018, CAWP found that 10 new women of color won statewide executive positions. Fewer of these statewide positions are elected during presidential election years compared with midterm election years, meaning that there are fewer opportunities this cycle. Unfortunately, statewide executive offices remain elusive for women of color: fewer than 5% of all statewide executives are women of color.
Notes from Colorado - Celeste Montoya, Associate Professor of Women & Gender Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder
In 2018, almost two-thirds of the ballots cast by registered Democrats in Colorado were from women. This led to the Democrats sweeping not only the Governor’s mansion, but both of the statehouses. In 2020, I will be watching to see to what extent that pattern may be repeated and how that may play out in the primary results. Some interesting facets of the Colorado election include that this is the first election where there is a presidential primary open to unaffiliated voters. This reform was initiated by independent Bernie voters who couldn’t caucus for him in the 2016 primary. It is not certain this will work in his favor in 2020. Colorado is a state with a strong tradition of independent voters, but many who tend to lean more conservative than progressive. Also relevant is how the presidential primary may impact turnout of the caucuses still being held (this coming Saturday) for other down ballot races, including the Senate race in which caucus goers will be able to support candidates looking to challenge Cory Gardner, a vulnerable Republican who has tied himself closely to Trump. There are five candidates going through the caucus and assembly process to make it on the ballot (there are an additional five attempting to so through the petition process). Of the five caucus candidates, two are women, including Stephanie Rose Spaulding, a professor of Women’s and Ethnic Studies, who would make history as the first African American woman to represent Colorado. While former governor John Hickenlooper has a significant incumbent advantage, Colorado voters using a #genderlens may be looking for something different.
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.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked many political observers when she beat incumbent congressman Joe Crowley of New York in the 2018 Democratic primary. Crowley had held the Bronx/Queens based congressional seat since 1999. Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, was a 28-year old political novice and former Bernie Sanders organizer running a progressive, grass roots campaign that capitalized on her newcomer status and the need to elect someone who looked more like the community being represented.
Will other progressive candidates, inspired by the success of Ocasio-Cortez and fellow freshman Representative Ayanna Pressley, who ousted Michael Capuano in a similar 2018 contest, challenge high-profile Democratic incumbents in this year’s primary elections?
Anecdotally, there does seem to be some evidence of an “AOC Effect.” Articles in Marie Claire and Vox have highlighted some of the progressive women challenging moderate Democratic incumbents. For example, the Marie Claire piece highlighted Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year old immigration attorney running against seven-term incumbent Henry Cuellar, a conservative House Democrat. She has garnered endorsements from Elizabeth Warren, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democratic leaders in the house like Steny Hoyer (MD), Jerry Nadler (NY), and Richard Neal (MA) all face primary challengers. Wondering if the AOC Effect is a real phenomenon, I took a look at some of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) data collected as of early February on the 2020 women candidates for the U.S. House.*
Here's what I found.
(1) A larger proportion of Democratic women candidates for the U.S. House are challenging incumbents of their own party than did in 2018.
Examining CAWP’s candidate data from early February 2020, I found some preliminary evidence that there is indeed an influx of Democratic women running as challengers in U.S. House primaries. Compared to 2018, when just 5.9% of Democratic women primary candidates ran as challengers to incumbents, 19.5% of Democratic women running in 2020 are doing so as primary challengers. This is also the highest percentage of Democratic women running as House challengers in the three decades that CAWP has collected this data.
(2) A larger proportion of Democratic women candidates than Republican women candidates for the U.S. House are challenging incumbents of their own party in 2020.
Additionally, if the hypothesis is that the Ocasio-Cortez’s success was particularly motivating to Democratic women challengers, the significant party difference in these data offers further support: while primary challengers are 19.5% of all Democratic women running for the House this year, only 5.9% of Republican women are challenging incumbents of their own party. You can also see this clearly in the raw numbers of women running. The total number of Democratic women running as primary challengers is higher than ever this year – a 228.6% increase from 2018 – while the number of Republican women primary challengers is down from the last congressional election.
(3) But historic evidence suggests these patterns are not entirely new to a post-AOC politic. Partisan control helps to explain the rise in Democratic women’s insurgent candidacies this year; similar proportions of women candidates – of both parties – ran as challengers when their party held the House majority.
The initial peek at the data does support the notion of an AOC Effect, but a deeper dive raises some doubts that there is something distinct happening with Democratic women this year. It’s possible that there are more Democratic than Republican primary challengers simply because more Democrats are now U.S. House incumbents; the path to success for non-incumbent women is more likely to be through a primary challenge for Democrats than Republicans. With more U.S. House districts held by Democrats nationwide, it’s no surprise that we see more Republican women running to challenge Democratic incumbents in the general election this year. Looking at trends over time offers further support that partisan control is an important indicator of women’s likelihood of running as primary challengers. A similar proportion of Republican women ran as primary challengers in 2012 (18.5%) – when Republicans held the majority of seats in the U.S. House – to the proportion of Democratic women running as primary challengers this year (19.5%), a difference that is not statistically significant. The pattern in the historical data suggests that the jump in Democratic women running as primary challengers can partially be attributed to the fact that this is the first time since 2010 that Democrats have controlled the House.
If this pattern is not distinct to Democrats, is there something about recent election years that has made women of both parties more likely to take on incumbents in their own parties? The historic trends offer little support that this dynamic is new. From 2014 to 2018, the proportion of Republican women running as primary challengers has remained consistent. Furthermore, if we look back to the early 90s when Democrats controlled the House, we see high percentages of women running as primary challengers (16.2% in 1990 and 18.4% in 1992).
(4) Still, the jump in the raw number of Democratic women House candidates running as primary challengers from 2018 to 2020 is unmatched in the past three decades.
Before we completely write off the AOC Effect, let’s return to the raw numbers. A record number of women ran for and were elected to office in 2018, and we are on track to beat that record in 2020. The size of the jump in Democratic women primary challengers from 2018 to 2020 (thus far) is noteworthy. At this point in election 2020, the overall number of likely Democratic women House candidates is roughly equal to the number of women who ran in 2018, but the number of primary challengers is more than 200% greater. This surge cannot be fully accounted for by the drop in the number of Democratic women running as challengers in the general election (-28%), nor even by the combined drop in these Democratic women running as general election challengers and those running for open seats (-28.9%).
The narrative that more progressive women are running as insurgent primary challengers and upsetting the establishment isn’t necessarily wrong. As the raw numbers show, more Democratic women are running as primary challengers. However, the story is not that simple. Accounting for historical trends and partisan indicators tempers conclusions that the success of two women Democratic primary contenders in 2018 opened the floodgates for more insurgent women to run this year.
Regardless of if or how many of the women running as primary challengers were inspired by the success of AOC and Ayanna Pressley, the electoral challenges they face are immense. Incumbency advantage is difficult to overstate. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the reelection rate for incumbents has consistently been over 85% within the last 60 years. The reelection rate for the House of Representatives was 97% in 2016. In 2018, out of the 39 women who ran as primary challengers, only 6 won their primary. Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley were the only general election winners. Incumbents have name recognition, campaign infrastructure, and fundraising advantages that newcomers don’t have. Even if the AOC Effect is real, these women have a tough path to victory.
* Data includes filed and likely women candidates, as many states still have yet to reach their filing deadline. These numbers will likely change by the end of the primary election season.
A recent New York Times article by Astead Herndon begins with this vignette from Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s event in Merrimack, New Hampshire:
Christine Bagley, 65, said Ms. Warren had been her top choice but described her as 'a bit of a bulldog,' saying Mr. Buttigieg made her feel more “hopeful and inspired.” Lois Luddy, 66, had also considered Ms. Warren, but said she was too 'bellicose.'
'It's always fight, fight, fight, fight, fight,' Ms. Luddy said of Ms. Warren, repeating the word for emphasis. 'Someone needs to tell her to calm down.'
Ms. Bagley shot back: 'Would you say that if she wasn't a woman?'
Be a Christine, not a Lois.
Christine’s question is one that we should all be asking in this presidential election – to others and to ourselves, and it is one that distills more complex analyses of gender bias to a relatively simple measure of equal standards. When Christine asks if Lois would tell a male “fighter” to “calm down,” she offers an intervention that is at the same time subtle and impactful. If Lois is confronted with the realization that her answer is “no,” she may be more likely to both recognize and regulate the gender bias with which she is evaluating presidential contenders.
Psychological research backs this up, finding that making individuals aware of discrepancies between the perceptions of their behavior (as prejudicial) and their self-concept (as egalitarian) can evoke feelings of guilt or self-dissatisfaction that cause them to change their behavior. The effectiveness of these types of confrontation is conditional on the self-perception of the perpetrator of bias (i.e. are they concerned with being perceived as egalitarian?), as well as on the type of bias and method of intervention. Most notably, research in social psychology has found that there are effective ways to confront racism, especially when done by non-target group members. But research has been less likely to establish the efficacy of confronting sexism, with multiple studies showing that reactions to imagined confrontations about sexism include amusement instead of guilt.
But recent research from Laura Parker, Margo Monteith, Corinne Moss-Rascusin, and Amanda Van Camp offers a more specific and effective strategy for combatting sexism. They suggest that evidence-based confrontation – showing individuals where and how they have been biased – more consistently yields a change in behavior to minimize gender bias. While their study focused on calling out gender bias in how individuals evaluated applicants for employment, a similar mechanism may be useful to consider in political interventions. Beyond simply asking Lois if she would react similarly to male aggression in a presidential candidate, Christine could elaborate on the harm that stereotypes around gender and emotion do to evaluations of women’s capacity to lead as well as the evidence that shows how expression of the same emotion by men and women yield disparate responses that more frequently hurt women than men.
Christine should also turn these questions and interventions onto herself. Before posing her question about the unparallel standards that Lois may be applying to Warren, Christine seems at risk of doing the same in critiquing Warren’s aggressive approach to campaigning.
The research also suggests that engaging in these types of interventions to curb sexist behavior or beliefs might also benefit women directly. In a 2010 article, Sarah Gervais, Amy Hillard, and Theresa Vescio write that, particularly for women, confronting gender bias “may serve as an antidote for some of the of the adverse psychological outcomes that women experience as targets of sexism.” They find a positive relationship between confronting sexism and women’s self-reports of competence, self-esteem, and empowerment.
So it’s a win-win when you challenge biased beliefs or practices instead of buying into them or assuming they're immutable.
Be a Ron, not a Donny.
The research on confronting sexism and racism also suggests that the most effective and persuasive interventions come from those individuals who are not members of groups most marginalized by these biases. Reviewing the consistency of these findings, scholars Jill Gulker, Aimee Mark, and Margo Monteith write, “Non-targets may be more effective confronters than targets because they are not perceived as having a vested interest in curbing prejudice.” They are less to be perceived as “complainers” and thus taken more seriously when calling out biased behavior. So what does this mean for curbing sexism in presidential politics? It means that Christine cannot do this work alone. Men, and particularly white men, have to join the fight.
Two recent anecdotes from presidential campaign coverage illuminate the contrast in how men can help or hurt the cause.
Last Friday, Donny Deutsch offered an example of what not to do on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. After host Joe Scarborough asked what might explain presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s decline in momentum over the past two months, Vice reporter Shawna Thomas discussed voters’ concern about the ability for a woman to win. Deutsch jumped in, questioning Thomas’ theory by saying:
Is it a woman or is it her? Or is it a certain stridentness to her that, do we want to invite her into our bedrooms and living rooms every day for four years? I think she has the same issue Bernie had. I don’t think it’s a gender issue—it’s a likability issue. I think we have to be careful. I think an amazing woman would be a great antidote to Jon’s point earlier, a different definition of strength if you will. Strength to strength but a different way. But I don’t think Elizabeth Warren’s problem has been she’s a woman.
Consistent with past behavior, Deutsch not only perpetuated stereotypes about smart women as “strident,” but went further to argue that, contrary to research, gender could be wholly separated from evaluations of candidates’ likability. In this instance, and especially as a white male with a huge platform, Deutsch does the opposite of what the research suggests to effectively confront sexism. Instead, he gives it legitimacy. Notably, Thomas – one of two women and the only person of color at the white, male-dominated table - did respond to Deutch’s rebuttal by noting, “[Warren’s] way more likable than Bernie Sanders,” though none of the men at the table directly intervened to call out Deutch’s bias.
In another, lesser-publicized, anecdote, a male ally offers an example of how to effectively confront sexism. At a rally for Elizabeth Warren in Nashua, The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse speaks with Warren canvasser Ron Jones:
'The biggest reluctance I hear is 'Can a woman win?' ' says Ron Jones, who, along with his friend Tom Harris, has been canvassing for Warren and had come to see her speak in a Nashua community college gym. 'I point out that a woman has already won,' he said, referring to Clinton's popular-vote victory. 'I
tell them, look at other countries with successful female leaders,' says Harris. “I tell them, look at successful female CEOs.' Or just look around you. 'Women are the majority in the country!' says Jones.
Ron’s intervention is evidence-based and reflective of his capacity to identify and reject biases around women’s electability and leadership credentials. But male allies can go further, calling out sexism that may be more subtle but equally – if not more – pervasive. For example, New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s post-mortem on Senator Kamala Harris’ campaign for president highlighted the need to analyze how racism and sexism affected media coverage, Democratic debate rules, and Democratic primary and caucus schedules. Blow engages in the rejection of legitimizing beliefs, those beliefs that individuals hold to rationalize group-based inequities as rooted in inherent deficits instead of systemic biases. He writes, “It seems to me that the questions here are bigger than missteps, real or perceived [of her campaign]. ...It is fair to ask what role racism and sexism played in her campaign’s demise. These are two “isms” that are permanent, obvious and unavoidable in American society.” Researchers Benjamin Drury and Cheryl Kaiser suggest that this unwillingness to explain away structural inequalities as individual weakness (as Deutsch did on air) is a key factor in men becoming allies in fighting sexism. Allyship cannot only come, however, from men who share experiences of marginalization or inequity with women on the basis of other social identities like race or sexual orientation; the burden for intervention and change must be put on men who privilege most from the status quo.
In a political environment that can feel overwhelming for many – and even hopeless for some, it’s worth remembering the power that we each have to combat sexism and bias in our everyday interactions. So when it comes to gender bias in politics, be confrontational. You, those around you, and hopefully our political institutions will be better for it.
Final results from the Iowa Democratic Caucus are still trickling in but one takeaway is clear: openly-gay former mayor Pete Buttigieg did quite well, exceeding expectations, helping his chances of becoming the 2020 Democratic nominee. So did Senator Bernie Sanders. Despite strong performances in Iowa, however, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar remain outside of the top-two contenders heading into New Hampshire’s presidential primary.
After the nomination of the first woman for president in 2016 and record-level electoral victories of Democratic women across levels of office in 2018, what does it mean that a gay White male mayor of the 305th largest American city has had more electoral success than the four women senators who entered the 2020 presidential contest with a combined 37 years of senatorial experience?
Would Patricia Buttigieg and Berniece Sanders, with identical levels of political experience and talent, be doing as well in 2020? Would a lesbian with Buttigieg’s record and campaign style be as warmly embraced by American voters? Would a Black woman with Obama’s message and charisma have won the 2008 Iowa caucuses? History suggests the answer to this question is no, especially for candidates with intersectional identities such as a lesbian or Black woman. Even White women, however, are struggling to be seen as electable.
While out LGBTQ individuals are still less than 2%, and women are less than 30%, of officeholders at the statewide, state legislative, and congressional levels, women and LGBTQ candidates have enjoyed record electoral success in recent years. Consistent with the surge in women’s political involvement since Trump’s election in 2016, record numbers of women ran for and won elected office in 2018 and gains continued into 2019. The last four years have also seen an explosion in the candidacies and elections of openly LGBTQ candidates, especially of gay White men. According to the Victory Fund, as of February 2020, there are 841 openly-LGBTQ elected officials nationwide. This figure is a huge increase from their first report in October 2017, when only 448 openly-LGBTQ officials were serving. This is happening not just in traditionally-Democratic areas but also in areas with more mixed partisanship like Kansas and Colorado, which elected the first openly-gay man as governor in 2018.
Public opinion suggests this success should extend to the presidential arena. The public regularly voices its openness to voting for a woman for president, including 94% of respondents in a May 2019 Gallup poll. The same survey showed that 76% of Americans would vote for a gay or lesbian candidate. While that number is three times the level of support that Gallup found when they first asked the question in 1978, it is far lower than support for a female presidential candidate.
An Ipsos/Daily Beast poll from June 2019 found that 74% of Democrats and Independents were comfortable with a female president. However, a common proxy for soliciting attitudes that individuals may be reluctant to admit is to ask what they assume their neighbors’ beliefs may be. When asked that question, only 33% thought their neighbors would be comfortable with a female president. The poll didn’t ask the same question about comfort voting for a gay candidate but in head-to-head matchups, only 61% of Democratic respondents said they would vote for Buttigieg over Trump compared to 78% for Warren.
We conducted a national survey of 1,200 U.S. adults in 2019 to gauge levels of comfort with members of various LGBTQ identities in different contexts, including as President of the United States. Only 56.7% reported they were very comfortable with the idea of a gay male president, and another 19% said they were somewhat comfortable for a total of 75.7%, mirroring the results of the Gallup poll. While this might seem like a high proportion, it means that nearly 1 in 4 respondents was uncomfortable with the idea, a large number for a tightly contested race.
Note: N=1,183, Data collected Feb. 8-March 5, 2019. Source: Michelson and Harrison 2020
Our survey also collected data on levels of comfort with lesbians, bisexual men and women, and transgender men and women as President of the United States. Overall, the discomfort that members of the public report toward gay men being president is similar to their comfort with lesbians and bisexuals. Respondents reported slightly higher levels of comfort with lesbians (59.1% very comfortable, 76.3% comfortable overall) and bisexual women (59.2% very comfortable, 76.1% comfortable overall); there was, however, slightly lower levels of comfort with bisexual men (56% very comfortable, 73.7% comfortable overall).
Comfort was significantly lower, however, when we asked about transgender people serving as president. Only 42% of respondents said they were very comfortable with a transgender man as president (58.1% comfort overall) and 42.5% said they were very comfortable with a transgender woman as president (57.8% comfort overall).
When it comes to electability, electoral outcomes are the only metrics that matter, so what do we make of these poll numbers given the actual Iowa results? That the public knows they should not voice their misogyny but they are not quite there on homophobia? That their homophobia is weaker than their misogyny and they are more willing to vote for a gay man? Does this mean that survey evidence of the willingness of voters to support a woman is just cheap talk? This could simply be further evidence that when surveys ask questions in generalities, responses don’t perfectly translate to voters’ actual opinions about specific, multifaceted candidates.
Another potential answer to these questions involves media coverage. In comparison to the media coverage of the historic nature of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as a woman, comparatively less attention has been paid to Buttigieg’s sexual orientation. Perceptions of his electability might decrease if there is more coverage of voters who may see his identity as threatening and scary. For example, after the Iowa caucuses, a video emerged of a woman who wanted to revoke her vote for Buttigieg after realizing he was gay.
If Buttigieg prevails, his nomination will be historic. Whether the nomination will translate into victory in the general election is unclear, but his successes so far are already paving the way for more openly LGBTQ candidates to run for office, including the presidency, in future cycles. This is surely something to be celebrated.
At the same time, that another man will likely win the nomination delays yet again the possibility of America electing its first woman president. Hillary Clinton—arguably more well qualified and certainly more experienced—was put aside for a Black man in 2008. Will Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar—both arguably more experienced—be passed over by the party for another man?
Several women are widely viewed as leading contenders for the vice presidency slot (cough, Stacey Abrams, cough). However, every previous successful candidate for the presidency and vice presidency has been a man. America has made great strides over the past century on gay rights and women’s rights but in many ways, the American presidency remains an old, White, cisgender boys’ club.
Harvey Milk said in a 1977 speech, “It's not my victory, it's yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight.” Buttigieg has certainly given LGBTQ people hope. The day after the Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg gave an emotional speech, saying, “It validates for a kid, somewhere in a community, wondering if he belongs, or she belongs, or they belong in their own family, that if you believe in yourself and your country, there’s a lot backing up that belief.”
As for women? On the centennial of the 19th amendment, women are still waiting for an equal chance at the White House.
Women candidates still face substantial barriers within the Democratic Party. While Democratic voters, on the whole, are less sexist than Americans in general, there is still substantial sexism among Democratic primary voters, and it has a real impact on support for female candidates. While there are plenty of reasons why a voter might not support a particular candidate, sexism still seems to be a significant barrier facing the women seeking the Democratic nomination.
Sexism and candidate choice in the Democratic primary
In a Data For Progress survey taken last year Democratic primary voters with higher sexism scores were much less likely to support female candidates in general, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in particular. In a closely contested primary, this can have an outsize impact on the race even if relatively few Democrats score on the very high end of sexism scales. Because the data is from last year, these figures shouldn’t be taken as indications of current levels of support for the candidates, but rather as an indication of the impact of durable characteristics on how voters see the candidates.
Among voters with the lowest sexism scores, Warren had 41 percent support; but that falls to less than 10 percent among those with the highest sexism scores. Support for former Vice-President Joe Biden increases steadily along with sexism, and individuals with the highest sexism scores disproportionately favor Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Source: Author’s analysis of Data For Progress survey, released 7/19/2019
Sexism is a contested concept, but its measure in this survey was fairly straightforward. Respondents were asked how much they agreed with a series of statements, like “Women are too easily offended,” or “Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them.” People who “strongly agree” with such statements were scored as more sexist than those who agreed less strongly, or disagreed with them altogether. While the overwhelming majority of respondents fell in the low-sexism range, around a quarter of Democrats scored moderate to high levels of sexism. As you might expect, sexism was higher among men, declined with respondents’ education, and was slightly higher among older Democrats. Non-white voters also scored higher on sexism than white voters, with the biggest gap coming between white and non-white men.
Are sexists just worried about electability?
Of course, there might be other reasons why female candidates, and Warren in particular, are falling short among voters with higher levels of sexism. It might be due to concerns among Democrats, driven by the outcome of the 2016 election, that women just aren’t as electable as men, or worries about Warren’s liberalism. If we’re to believe that sexism is driving down Warren’s support, we should make sure to eliminate these other expectations.
To look at electability, we can make use of a conjoint experiment embedded in the same survey. In a conjoint experiment, respondents are presented with hypothetical candidates, with randomly selected traits, and asked to choose between them. Because these choices aren’t about any particular candidate, they allow researchers to look at the effect of the various traits, like sex, age, race and policy positions, when separated from actual candidates. In this survey, respondents were also asked about the electability of the hypothetical candidates.
While higher sexism scores do lead Democrats to see female candidates as being less electable than those with lower sexism scores, it also leads them to see male candidates as less electable, and at nearly equal rates.
Source: Author’s analysis of Data For Progress survey, released 7/19/2019
The perceived electability gap between male and female candidates for sexism scores in the middle of the distribution is never more than about 3 points. While there is interplay between sexism and candidate preference broadly, there’s no evidence that sexism makes Democrats think that women in particular are less electable.
Sexism and ideology
The effect of Warren’s liberalism is harder to pin down. Among both men and women, Democrats who say that they’re moderate have higher sexism scores than those who identify as liberal. Conservative Democrats have even higher scores, but there just aren’t many of them voting in the primaries. Since moderate Democrats have higher sexism scores, it could be their ideology, rather than sexism, pulling support away from Warren.
To separate out the effects of sexism and ideology, we can use regression analysis, a statistical technique that allows us to examine the effect of one factor while holding others constant. The results show that support for Warren is linked not just to the sexism or liberalism of voters, but by the interaction of the two. If concerns about her liberalism were driving away primary voters, rather than sexism, it should be the case that sexism should matter less for self-identified liberal Democrats, and more for self-identified moderate Democrats.
What we see in the numbers is the exact opposite. Among liberal Democrats, who are more likely to be agreeing with Warren on the issues, sexism reduces support for her more than it does among moderate Democrats. Sexism reduces support for Warren generally, but the fact that it matters more to liberals than to moderates tells us that it isn’t her ideology driving voters away, but rather their views of women.
So where are these sexist liberals going? The obvious answer is to liberal male candidates, like Sanders. But while there may be a belief that Sanders has benefitted from sexism in the Democratic electorate, he doesn’t seem to be the main beneficiary here. While higher levels of sexism do increase the likelihood that a voter will support the Vermont Senator, the effects are small, and not larger among liberals than among moderates.
Instead, the main beneficiary of sexism among liberal Democrats seems to be a candidate perceived as more moderate: Joe Biden. Sexism has only a small impact on Biden’s support among moderate Democrats, but sexism dramatically increases his support among liberal Democrats, a group that otherwise doesn’t seem like his natural constituency. It seems likely that Biden’s appeals to traditional gender roles – offering to take on President Trump in a fist-fight, for instance – may be winning over liberal Democrats who hold more sexist views, despite their ideological differences.
Source: Author’s analysis of Data For Progress survey, released 7/19/2019
Sexism and the general election
Sexism also shapes voters’ responses to Warren and other female candidates in ways that are potentially more troubling for Democrats. Sexism is not only driving Democrats away from Warren in the primaries, but may also drive them towards Trump in the general election. In the Data For Progress survey, voters who indicated that they weren’t even considering voting for a candidate were asked what they would do if that candidate were to get the nomination. So, for instance, 67 percent of Democrats who said that they wouldn’t consider voting for Biden in the primary said that they’d support him in the general against Trump. Only 7 percent of Biden supporters said that they’d support Trump instead. For Warren, the numbers were rather different: among Democrats not considering Warren with low sexism scores, 58 percent say that they’d support her in the general, not far off from Biden’s numbers. The percent who would vote for Trump is about the same as well, at about 6 percent. However, among the group with moderate or high sexism scores, just 35 percent say that they’d vote for her in the general, only slightly more than the 32 percent who say that they’d vote for Trump instead.
Source: Author’s analysis of Data For Progress survey, released 7/19/2019
Of course, these figures are subject to change, and likely have changed since the data was collected last year, but there’s no reason to believe that the underlying sexism of the Democratic electorate has changed overmuch, nor the impact sexism has on the views voters hold of candidates.
None of this should be taken to mean that female candidates can’t win. Of course they can. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016; women Congressional candidates in 2018 won at higher rates than their male counterparts. But the fact that women do win doesn’t mean that there aren’t still barriers making those victories harder than they would be for similarly situated male candidates. This doesn’t mean that supporters of a particular candidate, or members of a particular party are all sexist. As noted above, the majority of Democrats studied here scored low on the sexism scale. But sexism is a trait that exists to some extent in many voters, male and female, Democratic and Republican, and even in subtle forms, it can present real problems for female candidates.
Even in 2020, and even among the Democratic primary electorate, a group that’s thought to be more progressive on gender issues, sexism presents an additional hurdle that male candidates just don’t have to contend with. Of course, voters in the Democratic primary are also worried about the electability of candidates, and of course the ideology of the candidates plays into their decision-making process, but sexism plays a role above and beyond these concerns. To make matters worse, even discussing sexism may exacerbate the effects of sexism on the perceived electability of female candidates. Combine this with the fact that a significant portion of the Democratic electorate has said they won’t rally around Warren in the general election, and it becomes clear that the barriers to a woman winning the presidency still seem formidable. Of course women can win, but if the election is a race, women are still doing it like Ginger Rogers: backwards and in high heels.
It started on day one of the impeachment trial when NPR’s Scott Detrow tweeted at 2pm on June 21, “Just ducked out of the Senate chamber. Amy Klobuchar is taking a lot of notes. Bernie Sanders is not - mostly sitting with his hands folded under his chin.” Soon after, New York Times sketch artist Art Lein posted an image of Senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, wherein Burr is laid back in his chair while Loeffler is actively writing on her notepad. Buzzfeed reporter Paul McLeod rated Senator Susan Collins as the “most studious Republican” and Senator Dianne Feinstein as the “most studious Dem” midway through Tuesday’s proceedings.
By the second day of opening arguments, Bloomberg reporter Steve Dennis concluded that Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski were the “Republican senators who appear to be listening most intently, hour after hour,” adding, “I don’t really think it’s a close call.” His observation was bolstered by PBS’ Lisa Desjardins, who called both women “warriors of decorum” (and the Senators most likely in their seats), and sketch artist Art Lein, who drew the pair of women “closely following the arguments of the House impeachment managers,” taking notes and reading documents at their desks.
By day three of the trial, Politico reporters counted three women among the four senators they labeled as “most studious”; in addition to Collins and Murkowski, they described Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s pen as “almost constantly moving during the many hours of Democrats’ opening arguments.”
These observations suggest a commonality among the Senate’s most engaged pupils: they are women (who, by the way, are still under one-third of all senators). And while we’d need much more information to make any empirical claim that women senators are working harder than their male colleagues this week, that conclusion would not be much of a surprise to those of us who do research on women in politics or, for that matter, to any woman.
Multiple studies on gender differences in Congress reveal that women not only feel pressure to be among the most prepared, but also are among the most productive and effective legislators. When my colleagues and I interviewed more than two-thirds of congresswomen in the 114th Congress, both points were backed by multiple women lawmakers. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) told us, “Women still have to prove their competency,” adding, “You need to know more than your male colleagues and even some of your female colleagues.” Putting it more clearly, she concluded, “Women have to work harder. That is still very much the case here. And no matter how many times that you demonstrate that you [are competent, you have] to continue to demonstrate it.” Likewise, Representative Kathleen Rice (D-NY) told us, “People are not used to seeing women in these positions. So we have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves.” On women’s effectiveness, Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) explained, “I think that women tend to ... be a lot more focused on what the job is, getting the job done, and doing it in a way that is not necessarily adversarial.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has also talked about women’s achievement-oriented approach to governing; on the day following a January 2016 snowstorm, she presided over a Senate chamber where the few staffers and members that showed up were women. She posited, “Perhaps it speaks to the hardiness of women — that ‘put on your boots and put your hat on and get out and slog through the mess that’s out there’ [spirit].”
Empirical research backs the claim that women get the job done. Studies on legislative effectiveness show that women in the U.S. House sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than their male counterparts, have been more likely than men to get bills passed when serving in the minority party, and have been more successful than their male colleagues in bringing financial resources to their home districts. Why? Lazarus and Steigerwalt suggest that women perceive themselves as more electorally vulnerable than men, leading them to outwork men in Congress across multiple measures. Beyond vulnerability on the campaign trail, however, is the pressure women face to prove themselves within the institution in which they serve. When Representative DeLauro explained that women have to continue to demonstrate their competence in Congress, she was not only talking about demands from constituents and voters; the pressure – not to stumble, not to show any weakness, and never to come unprepared – also comes from navigating a still male-dominant space in which women’s hold and exercise of power remains exceptional instead of normal.
Over the past few months, I have been talking about the additional work women do while campaigning to achieve the same results as men. That fact is backed by evidence that women candidates are not only of better quality than men (on average), but that they face a higher bar in proving to voters that they are both competent and electable. But here’s the thing – they do it and they succeed. The oft-cited claim that “when women run, women win” is accurate, and the 2018 election only affirmed women’s electoral strengths, as we showed in CAWP’s fall 2019 report Unfinished Business. But these two realities co-exist: women work harder to achieve the same success as men.
This week’s commentary on the most attentive senators during the impeachment trial support findings that this burden does not stop once women are elected to office. Whether by writing diligent notes or staying in their seats, women senators both anticipate and adapt to being held to alternative standards than their male colleagues. They remind us that it’s hard work being a woman in Congress, but they are up for it.
To anyone paying attention to presidential politics, the news that Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) expressed doubt about a woman’s ability to win the presidential election is far from surprising. If Sanders raised this concern to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) – something Warren confirmed, but he denies – he would join the company of many political elites, commentators, and voters who have perpetuated a falsehood about women’s capacity to succeed at the highest level of American politics.
Before I debunk the claim that a woman cannot be elected President this year, it is worth exploring why skepticism about women’s ability to win persists. First, other than in fictional representations, we have yet to see a woman hold presidential office in the United States. If seeing is believing, then asking people to see the possibility of a woman president means asking them to do more work than asking them to see a (white) man in that role. Former Democratic candidate and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) addressed this directly on the campaign trail, telling crowds, “I have faith in the American people to know that we will never be burdened by the assumptions of who can do what based on who historically has done it.” Unfortunately, Harris’ belief is aspirational, as we know that some Americans are burdened by what has been in envisioning what can be. A June 2019 Ipsos poll demonstrated these doubts; while 74% of Democrats and Independents said they were comfortable with having a female president, just 33% believed their neighbors were just as accepting of a woman in the Oval Office. Reports from media or political elites that doubt women’s electability – often without basis in facts – only make these concerns seem more legitimate.
A second source of skepticism may well be rooted in much of the work that organizations like mine do to illuminate and address the gendered hurdles that women face en route to elected office. In detailing the stubbornness of political institutions to women’s full inclusion and empowerment, we might unintentionally stir fear among those who perceive those hurdles to be insurmountable. However, our research – and that of many scholars in gender and politics – demonstrates the opposite; that despite gender biases, women are just as politically successful as men. While there is potential for even greater success among women if they were not burdened with doing more work to achieve the same results as men, the resilience of women in politics should be viewed an asset, not a liability, in electoral politics.
Finally, a more pessimistic take on why some perpetuate the myth of women’s unelectability is that they seek to maintain a status quo that works to their advantage. In simpler terms, men benefit from perceptions that nominating women is too risky a proposition for presidential success. Apart from Sanders’ alleged comments, former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to use these concerns to his advantage at a recent campaign event. After explaining how Hillary Clinton faced unfair sexist attacks, Biden added, “That’s not going to happen with me.” While his campaign pushed back against claims that Biden was feeding into fears of women’s electability, his statement – intentionally or not – implies that this perceived liability of nominating a woman can be avoided by nominating a man.
Whether rooted in legitimate fear or cynical strategy, perpetuating the belief that women cannot win the presidency is not only bad for women, it is factually incorrect. Here’s why:
1. A woman won nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump in election 2016. Consistent with polls showing that the large majority of voters are comfortable voting for a woman for president, the majority of U.S. voters did vote for a woman candidate – Hillary Clinton – in the 2016 election.
2. Women can win (and have won) in swing states. Despite winning the popular vote, Clinton lost the presidential race in the electoral college. But there is no evidence that gender was (or is) a determinative barrier to success in the battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – states that could have pushed Clinton over the 270 electoral vote total she needed to win. In fact, Democratic women dominated statewide executive elections in Michigan in 2018, winning three of four posts including Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General. In Wisconsin, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D) has won statewide contests since 2012 as the first openly LGBT person elected to the U.S. Senate. And while Pennsylvania’s record for women in statewide office has not been great, 2018 witnessed the state’s largest increase in women’s congressional representation ever in that state, from zero to four.
3. Women won at higher rates than men in the 2018 election. Non-incumbent Democratic women candidates for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and statewide elected executive offices (other than governor) won primary and general elections at higher rates than non-incumbent men in election 2018. Most notably, Democratic women were responsible for the majority of U.S. House seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat in election 2018, thereby playing a key role in changing partisan control of the chamber in 2019. Women also flipped 4 of 7 governorships from Republican to Democrat in the last election. These successes indicate that women are not only capable of winning elections, but have outperformed men overall and in the most competitive races in the latest election cycle.
4. Research consistently shows that gender is not a disadvantage for women at the ballot box. The data on win rates and seats won are helpful, but limited, in identifying the influence (or lack thereof) of gender in shaping electoral outcomes. Gender is just one of many pieces of the electoral puzzle, informing candidate and voter behavior at various phases of the electoral process. While gender stereotypes persist in perceptions of political candidates, Kathy Dolan’s research shows “no evidence of any direct, consistent, or substantial impact” of gender stereotypes on evaluations of, or voting for, women candidates. She concludes, along with others, that partisanship overwhelms gender in real-world campaigns, even if gendered attitudes among voters persist. My own work has shown how women candidates and their teams navigate gender on the campaign trail in order to ensure that it is not a liability at the ballot box. As political consultant Mary Hughes told me, “Gender really ceases to be an important factor if you do your work well.” While this can yield different and/or additional burdens placed on women candidates, their political success has shown that they are more than able to bear them. And, in recent elections especially, women candidates have shown that they can use their gender as an electoral advantage by tapping into voters’ desire to disrupt the male dominance in perspectives, experiences, and power in our political institutions. Finally, making universal claims of gender advantage or disadvantage is problematic. Women who run for office are equally diverse to the men, but they are still too frequently viewed through a monolithic lens of gender in ways that men are not.
Each of these data points refutes claims that a woman cannot win the next (or any future) presidential election due to the liability of her gender. But you know what makes it harder (but not less likely) for a woman to win? The unwillingness of people, especially political elites, to, as Senator Harris explained, “believe…in what can be, unburdened by what has been.” Those who withhold support from women and/or foster doubt about women’s capacity for success, rooted in dated notions of what is possible, only interfere in the project of women’s political progress. So when it comes to the non-believers, don’t believe them.
The number of sexual harassment and assault allegations against President Donald Trump are so numerous and difficult to keep track of that the Huffington Post has a running list of the women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct. However, political conservatives do not have the market cornered on sexual harassment. Recently, Business Insider reported on allegations that Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg made sexist remarks to colleagues, told demeaning jokes, and fostered an overall work environment that was hostile to women during his tenure as head of Bloomberg LP. Although the allegations of harassment against Bloomberg never included anything of a physical nature, they represent a form of sexism and misogyny that most women know to be every bit as insidious to the project of gender equality and liberation as physical violence.
In a piece in The Atlantic by journalist Megan Garber on the Bloomberg case, she posed the question, “Will the Americans (and specifically now, apparently, the Democrats) of the current moment consider allegations involving casual misogyny, on the personal level and at the institutional, to be politically disqualifying? Will they consider those claims, indeed, to be worth discussing at all? Or will they dismiss them as the predicable collateral of the thing Americans are conditioned, still, to value above all: the successful accumulation of power and wealth?” Despite extant legal definitions, there is no public consensus on what does and doesn’t constitute sexual harassment. In my own work with co-authors Clarisse Warren, a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska, and Stephen Schneider, a post-doc at Purdue University, we shed light on this question and find that to a large extent, partisanship predicts evaluations of sexual harassment.
Recognizing differences in the way in which sexual harassment and assault were discussed by political partisans, we conducted a series of studies to examine the degree to which ideology is associated with varying perceptions of sexual harassment. In one study conducted among two diverse samples, we asked participants to read five brief vignettes of hypothetical scenarios between a worker, “Jane” and her male boss. These scenarios ranged from ambiguous (e.g., being called “sweetheart”) to unambiguous (e.g., pressure for sexual favors) forms of harassment. After each vignette, participants were asked the degree to which they believed sexual harassment occurred in the hypothetical situation.
The difference between liberals and conservatives in their perceptions of sexual harassment was striking. Across both samples, liberals were more likely to identify the scenarios presented in the vignettes as sexual harassment. These differences were statistically significant. Furthermore, these results held even when we took into consideration the effects of age, race, gender, and religiosity. Even in the least ambiguous situation (pressure for sexual favors in the workplace), conservatives were significantly less likely than liberals to label this act as harassment. These findings are consistent with past research on sexual harassment attitudes and the 2018 midterm election.
We conducted a follow up survey of adult women to explore whether or not these partisan differences in perceptions of sexual harassment extend to personally experienced sexual harassment. We found that conservative women reported significantly fewer instances of personally experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment than liberal women. In fact, the most liberal women reported almost twice the number of discriminatory or harassing experiences as the most conservative women in the sample. We posit that it is unlikely that this finding is due to substantive differences in women’s experiences on the basis of their political persuasion; instead, these findings likely reflect individual differences in women’s willingness to label their experiences as constituting gender discrimination or harassment. In other words, liberal women are more likely to call out harassing behavior whereas conservative women are more likely to stay silent and ascribe this behavior to idea that “boys will be boys.”
Why do partisans differ?
So why do partisans differ so sharply in their evaluations of sexual harassment. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the mechanism is that drives these differences but based on existing research one possible driver is something called social dominance orientation (SDO). Social dominance orientation essentially consists of two things: 1. a person’s preference for group-based hierarchy and 2. how opposed they are to equality. This opposition to equality is usually expressed through prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors towards groups with less status and power. In several studies researchers have found that individuals with a social dominance orientation are more tolerant of sexual harassment and are more likely to identify as politically conservative. My co-authors and I argue that because sexual harassment is rarely about sexual desire and is typically motivated by the need to protect or enhance the social status of the perpetrator, it is plausible that conservatives may be less likely to identify questionable workplace interactions as sexual harassment because it falls within the established gender hierarchy with women in the subordinate position. For those higher in SDO, even just asserting that an interaction might constitute sexual harassment could be interpreted as going against traditional belief structures about the proper role of women in society. They may see these interactions as something that is simply maintaining the status quo of power relations instead of viewing it as a problem that needs solving.
What are the implications?
Returning to the question Garber proposed in The Atlantic, will Americans consider allegations of sexual harassment to be politically disqualifying? Based on the research presented above the answer is conditional on many factors, and in particular, ideology. There is no consensus, particularly between political partisans, on what actions even constitute sexual harassment. Furthermore, when considering allegations against specific politicians, people tend to be far more forgiving of in-party politicians. This notion is supported by a wealth of research on partisanship as a social identity, partisan bias, and partisan polarization. Even as recently as a few years ago, partisanship may have almost perfectly predicted how people respond to politician’s malfeasances. However, the political climate has shifted radically in just a few short years. The #MeToo Movement has, in many ways, forced us to reckon with the pervasiveness of sexism, sexual harassment, and assault. It has made us confront past biases that allowed us to overlook the actions of leaders on our own side of the political aisle. But the #MeToo Movement is far from being devoid of ideology. Liberals have mostly driven this movement with many conservatives being openly hostile to the cause. Based on my own research and anecdotal examples such as how Democrats responded to accusations against Al Franken, liberals will respond more harshly to politicians accused of sexual harassment. This is not to say that Democrats will always respond to harassment allegations impartially. For example, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax remains in office nearly one year after two women made sexual assault claims against him.
What does this mean for Michael Bloomberg? Fellow presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has called for Bloomberg to answer for his alleged comments and in particular, she called for his accusers to be released from their nondisclosure agreements. Unfortunately for Michael Bloomberg, the 2020 election may be the first presidential election where allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct are indeed politically disqualifying, at least for liberals.