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.
I felt like I was square dancing and the call “next verse same as the first” came through when I heard that New York Congressman Peter King was retiring. Headlines immediately started flying “Democrats and Republicans scramble to replace Peter King.” Why are the Democrats scrambling? There is a Black woman who has been campaigning since May to unseat Representative King and her name is Jackie Gordon.
Jackie Gordon is an immigrant, a combat veteran, an educator, a public servant, and a community leader and she has been putting in the work. After serving 29 years in the United States Army Reserve where she was deployed to Germany, Guantanamo Bay, and Baghdad, she retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. When not on reserve duty, Jackie worked for 30 years in the New York public schools serving as a guidance counselor and mentor. In 2007 she was elected to the Babylon Town Council where she chaired the Veterans Advisory Council. She has drawn on her deep roots across New York’s 2nd Congressional District to garner support from a wide range of stakeholders...yet the Democrats are looking for a candidate. By way of comparison, in 2018 Representative King was almost defeated by Liuba Grechen Shirley in the most contested campaign of his career. Grechen Shirley didn’t launch her campaign for NY-2 until October of 2017 but was able to raise over $125,000 in her first disclosure statement filed 11 months before the general election. Jackie launched her campaign to unseat King in May of this year and raised over $110,000 in her first disclosure statement, 18 months before the general election.
Hello, Democrats. No need to look further. You have your candidate. And get this: if you invest in her, she’ll win.
We saw this same story play out in 2018 in New Jersey, Florida, Nevada and other states. Black women stepped up to the fight before it was considered politically expedient, and then, when the fight seemed winnable, the Black woman was pushed aside in favor of someone who was more politically palatable: someone who was either white or male or both.
Arguably, of the seats that flipped in the 2018 election, 3 out of 4 won with that strategy. One can theorize that the Black women candidates seeded the ground for the candidates that ultimately won, or, on the flip side, the Black women’s candidacies weren’t viable which is why other candidates had to step in.
This latter argument should sound aggravatingly familiar to anyone who has already picked their candidate in the Democratic presidential primary and is feeling frustrated that there is still so much chatter that “the right candidate” has not yet entered the race, prompting the exploratory campaign of Michael Bloomberg and the late entrance of Deval Patrick. Democrats across the political sphere are saying, “We need to just get behind one candidate and make that candidate the strongest they can be.”
That same desire to coalesce around one candidate in the presidential race should be brought to House and Senate contests. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for primaries. I think primaries help flush out issues and policies that can and should bring more of the electorate into the process in determining who becomes the nominee. What I am opposed to is when gatekeepers and powerbrokers put their thumb on the scale instead of letting the voters decide. Powerbrokers and gatekeepers are exactly that. They wield their power and guard their gates to preserve the status quo– white male patriarchy.
What does a Black woman have to do to get equal treatment by the powers that be? Campaign like a white man? If 2018 taught us anything, we should know that when candidates campaign as their authentic selves, bringing their full life experience to the voters, the voters respond and vote for them. Voters are looking to have more diverse voices in Congress because they are realizing that there are more voices that are not at the decision-making tables than are.
All Black women want is a fair shot, to not have to campaign against someone when the system has their thumb on the scale.
Let Jackie run. Give her the full support of the party and other power structures and let’s see what happens.
Don’t make her the sacrificial lamb that paves the way for others.
Today is Election Day in Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia.[i] Either one or both chambers of each state’s legislature is on the ballot in this off-year election, giving us a chance to identify gender trends before the bulk of states hold state and federal elections in 2020.
1. Are more women on the ballot in 2019?
The charts below show recent trends in the number of women state legislative nominees in each state by chamber and party. What they reveal is that the number of women who made it through their party primaries is higher in 2019 than in the previous election in every case. While the increase in women nominees for the Virginia Senate was notably higher (+64%) than recent cycles, gains in women’s nominations across other chambers are more modest. Perhaps most notably, while the number of women nominees for the Virginia House of Delegates increased by 68% from 2015 to 2017, the increase from 2017 to 2019 is just 19%.
2. Do women represent a greater share of the candidate pool in 2019?
The table below tells a positive story; women are a greater proportion of all state house and senate nominees this year than in each previous cycle. Gains in raw numbers of women nominees are less notable if they are matched by increases among men. In order to evaluate the representativeness (at least vis-à-vis gender) the candidate pools in state legislative contests, we must consider women nominees’ share of all major-party lines on this year’s general election ballots.
3. Will Republican women see gains in 2019?
Women made historic gains in election 2018, but those gains were limited to Democratic women. Likewise, Democrats were responsible for the historic gains for women in Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2017. Partisan differences persist in 2019, with Republican women representing a smaller proportion of all major-party nominees than Democratic women in each state holding legislative elections tomorrow. Most notably, Republican women are less than 30% of Republican nominees in all chambers, while Democratic women are more than 30% of nominees in all but one chamber holding elections tomorrow. In Virginia’s House of Delegates election, women outnumber men among Democratic nominees.
While Republican women still represent a smaller share of their party’s nominees this year, they make up a larger share of their party’s nominees than they did in the previous cycle in each chamber’s contests. Moreover, as the charts above indicate, Republican women’s nominations increased in nearly every chamber this year compared to the previous cycle.
4. Are women poised to make gains in state legislative representation in 2019?
One way to assess women’s chances of gaining seats in 2019 is by looking at the type of races in which they are nominees. As the charts below show, women are nominees for more open seats (no incumbent running) in 2019 than in the previous cycle in Virginia and Mississippi house elections. They are a greater number of challengers to incumbents this year than in the previous cycle in contests for the Virginia Senate, New Jersey Assembly, and Mississippi House. While challengers typically fare worse than incumbents and candidates running for open seats, the success of women challengers in Virginia in 2017 (30% win rate) and Congress in 2018 should caution predictions of their demise this year.
Stay tuned to CAWP for our post-election analysis of this year’s contests on Election Watch, where we will provide the definitive answer about women’s gains (or not) in state legislative seats.
5. How far are we from reaching gender parity in these state legislatures?
On Election Day 2019, women hold 28.9% of all state legislative seats nationwide. Women’s state legislative representation currently ranges from 13.8% (Mississippi) to 30.8% (New Jersey) in the states holding elections this year. While we may see gains as a result of the 2019 election, gender parity will almost certainly remain elusive in these state legislatures. It would take women nominees winning in nearly every district in which they are running to achieve gender parity in Virginia’s state legislature, while gender parity is impossible as a result of this cycle in both New Jersey’s and Mississippi’s legislatures.
Does any of this foreshadow what we’ll see in 2020? If so, these data should urge both optimism and caution. In 2019, women are better represented on state legislative ballots than previous cycles, but the increases in women’s candidacies are smaller than we saw going into the 2017 cycle. Moreover, partisan disparities persist and, even with an increase in women candidates, gender parity in state legislatures is an unlikely result of this year’s elections. Similar trends are worth watching for in election 2020.
[i] Kentucky is also holding statewide elections today and Louisiana will hold state legislative and statewide elections on November 16, 2019.
With one year to go until Election Day 2020, the Center for American Women and Politics has asked experts in gender and politics – scholars and practitioners alike – to provide their outlooks for the gender and intersectional dynamics to watch in the next year. See their contributions below and stay tuned to CAWP’s Election Watch throughout the campaign for additional, and more detailed, analyses of these dynamics. Finally, don’t miss CAWP’s latest report, Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond, for important context of what happened in 2018 and what we’re watching in the year ahead.
To what degree will there be pressure to ensure that the ticket is diverse in some meaningful way?
Kathleen Dolan, Distinguished Professor of Political Science
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
The selection of a vice presidential candidate is always an interesting aspect of a presidential election campaign, but the forces surrounding the 2020 Democratic nomination may make this one particularly interesting – and possibly historic. The Democratic Party tends to value diversity as a guiding principle and, as a result, has attracted the most diverse pool of candidates for the nomination that we have ever seen. Women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community can see themselves reflected in many of the candidates and can hear these candidates speak to issues important to their communities.
Given that the last two Democratic nominees were a Black man and a White woman, I wonder to what degree there will be pressure to ensure that the ticket is diverse in some meaningful way. If the primary process results in one of the White men being the nominee, will there be pressure on that candidate to choose a woman or a person of color (or both!) as the vice-presidential candidate? Would the nomination of a White woman lead to the selection of a person of color for the #2 spot? Would a primary victory by a woman ironically lead to a call for the vice-presidential candidate to be a man? Given the diversity of the pool of candidates this year, the Democrats may have the chance to field a historic ticket.
I’ll be watching non-college-educated White women.
Christine Matthews, President
In 2016, non-college-educated White women gave Donald Trump a nearly thirty-point margin over Hillary Clinton. But it appears the president has not worn well with them.
In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 53% of non-college-educated white women said they disapproved of the job Donald Trump is doing; just 42% approved. While the president can count on support from white non-college-educated men who remain ardent supporters, the math does not work for him without the women.
However, it’s not all good news for Democrats. Their support from non-college-educated women may depend on who they nominate. If it’s an old white man, then they are in luck. White non-college-educated-women prefer former Vice President Joe Biden by twelve points (54%-42%) and Senator Bernie Sanders by five (50%-45%) over Trump. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris tie with Trump and Mayor Pete Buttigieg is down by a few points. This isn’t set in stone, obviously, but this early polling does send a signal about what non-college white women are looking for. They are the ones I will be watching.
Retention and growth.
Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics
I’m watching to see if the 35 first term incumbent Congresswomen running for reelection, many of whom won in districts they flipped from Red to Blue, will retain their seats. I’m also attentive to the Republican women who are running for the House this cycle. In 2018, 41 seats changed party hands from Republican to Democrat, making those seats particularly vulnerable to a GOP challenge in 2020. Will Republican women be recruited and run for these targets of opportunity? Will they make it through their primary? Will they have the financial backing they need to be successful? Can Republican women make up some of the ground they lost in 2018, both in Congress and in state legislatures?
An eye towards intersectional candidates.
Ivy Cargile, Assistant Professor of Political Science
California State University – Bakersfield
Candidates’ identities matter. The question for 2020, however, is in what ways will the intersecting identities of women candidates of color matter? Women of color candidates made history across levels of office in 2018, and there is little doubt that their intersectional identities helped to propel them. For the last two years, the American electorate has witnessed a government with elected officials who are more representative of them. The power of descriptive representation for communities who are underrepresented can be mobilizing. Will we see similar effects in 2020? And will the 2018 midterm elections motivate large numbers of women of color to decide to run for political office?
A quick glimpse of candidates such as Catalina Lauf (a Latina Republican seeking to challenge Lauren Underwood in the Illinois 14th Congressional District) or Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez (a Latina seeking to challenge Republican Senator from Texas John Cornyn) signals this might be true. Beyond the numbers, however, how will voters react to women of color candidates? Will we have a repeat of the aftermath of the 1992 elections where the country elected historic numbers of women but gains slowed thereafter? As we get closer to 2020, it is vital to remain keenly aware of how the identities of women candidates of color will influence their campaigns and electoral outcomes.
Our research team is analyzing the traits used to describe the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in online, print, and television media.
Erin C. Cassese, Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Delaware
Meredith Conroy, Associate Professor of Political Science
California State University – San Bernardino
Researchers have been tracking cable and online news coverage of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to see who is garnering the most attention. Since announcing his candidacy, former Vice President Joe Biden has led the pack with marked consistency. But the amount of media coverage candidates are receiving can only tell us so much. Past research shows that there are qualitative differences in coverage, which can shape public perceptions of the candidates, particularly along gender lines. Given the record number of women in the presidential primary, it seems critically important to understand whether media coverage of the women running is more negative and whether primary race coverage more generally reinforces stereotypic associations between gender and power. And with more people paying attention to the field than ever before, media coverage is arguably more consequential to a candidate’s credibility, standing in the polls, fundraising, and ultimately, to their success.
To get a handle on whether male and female candidates receive qualitatively different media coverage, our research team is analyzing the traits used to describe the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in online, print, and television media as the primary contest unfolds. We’re focused on five dimensions of coverage: warmth, competence, compassion, honesty, and leadership. One of our goals in this project is to determine whether there are gender differences in the traits used to describe the candidates and whether these differences reflect biased media coverage of their campaigns. Our focus on warmth and competence in particular give us new insights into whether current female candidates continue to face a double bind –the need to embody a particular mix of both masculine and feminine traits in order to appear palatable to American voters. The double bind was a challenge for Hillary Clinton’s candidacies in 2008 and 2016, and we will evaluate how it manifests in 2020.
I want to see if national power brokers, gatekeepers, and institutions reevaluate their assessments of the viability of women of color as they look to 2020.
Founder, Higher Heights
Visiting Practitioner, Center for American Women and Politics
Of the 36 newly elected women in the 116th Congress, 25 of those women flipped seats from red to blue. Given the performance of women candidates and particularly the performance of women of color, I want to see if national power brokers, gatekeepers, and institutions reevaluate their assessments of viability as they look at 2020 down ballot candidates. It has been shown that a Black woman candidate is a great return on an investment, but of the five new Black women elected to Congress in 2018, those same gatekeepers, power brokers, and institutions sat on the sidelines until it was inevitable that those women would be the nominee when in many races where white women ran, they endorsed very early in the primary process when, all things being equal, the Black women should have received the same support.
I am also curious as to whether we will see the same robust field of Black women candidates at the Congressional level in 2020 as we did in 2019. Are Black women still feeling that the stakes are too high for them to sit on the sidelines or are they disheartened by the unsuccessful bids of women like Stacey Abrams whose candidacies were sabotaged by voter suppression and gerrymandering?
I’ll be watching how women candidates are raising and spending money in 2020… and how race and gender are working together to shape the campaign finance landscape.
Kira Sanbonmatsu, Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics
One thing I’ll be watching in 2020 is campaign finance. Money is only one factor in campaigns. But it’s an important area to watch for the women running in 2020. Women candidates are successful fundraisers. However, many questions remain about whether fundraising is a level playing field for women candidates and especially women of color candidates. How are women faring as they pursue all levels of office including the presidency? Women donors are more involved in elections than ever before but they’re still outpaced by men’s giving. American women, including women of color, earn less than men and have fewer assets.
I’ll be watching how women candidates are raising and spending money in 2020, how they fare in comparison with men, whether women are able to close the gender gap as contributors, and how race and gender are working together to shape the campaign finance landscape. One resource I’ll be following is the comprehensive, 50-state information gathered by the National Institute on Money in Politics.
I’m paying close attention to the off-year 2019 state legislative elections for the Virginia General Assembly and their implications for 2020.
Rosalyn Cooperman, Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Mary Washington
I am paying close attention to the off-year 2019 state legislative elections for the Virginia General Assembly and their implications for 2020. In 2017, CAWP ranked Virginia 38th in the nation for women's representation in state legislatures. Following the elections that saw an unprecedented number of women Democrats elected to the Virginia General Assembly, the state jumped to 22nd for women's representation and the Virginia House of Delegates nearly flipped from red to blue. Following the 2018 midterm congressional elections, Virginia sent three newly elected women Democrats to Congress – Representatives Elaine Luria (VA-2), Abigail Spanberger (VA-7), and Jennifer Wexton (VA-10), all of whom defeated Republican incumbents – and flipped the state's congressional delegation from majority Republican to majority Democrat.
With an eye to 2020 congressional and presidential elections, I will be watching to see how Democratic and Republican women candidates fare in the November 2019 state legislative races. Several women legislators face competitive re-election bids. A number of progressive groups, including EMILY's List and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, have pledged funds to support women Democratic candidates and flip majority party control of the Virginia General Assembly. The results from 2019 may again foreshadow voter behavior in the Commonwealth in 2020 and also signal how Representatives Luria, Spanberger, and Wexton will fare in their first re-election bids.
I’m watching the field of Senate and House races, particularly in states where Latinas/os/xs hold a critical mass (30% or more).
Anna Sampaio, Professor of Ethnic Studies and Political Science and Chair of Ethnic Studies Department
Santa Clara University
Given their standing as the largest racial/ethnic minority population in the U.S. and their growing impact on key statewide races as well as the national electorate, my political lens this election is squarely fixed on Latina/o/x candidates and voters.
On the national stage, Julian Castro has struggled as a presidential contender, but has stood out from the crowded Democratic field by articulating a complex intersectional analysis of immigration reform and reproductive rights – challenging perceptions that these are exclusively raced or gendered issues. As the Democratic field narrows, I’m watching to see how Castro’s work on these key issues translates into the DNC platform and whether he retains his footing on the national stage as a vice presidential selection (particularly for Elizabeth Warren). I’m also watching the field of Senate and House races, particularly in states where Latinas/os/xs hold a critical mass (30% or more) and where there are high profile Latinas with political experience, who ran in previous races, or have held statewide office. Colorado stands out in this mix as activist Lorena Garcia is running in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate seat, and Crisanta Duran, who was the first Latina state House speaker in the country, will challenge Democratic incumbent Rep. Diana DeGette.
I’m also watching the impact of Latina/o/x voters on the Democratic primaries and key Senate races in Arizona and Colorado (both considered tossup contests) as well as New Mexico. In both Arizona and Colorado, the mixture of competitive Senate races and a growing tide of disenchanted Republicans and independent voters increases the likelihood that a mobilized Latina/o/x electorate could flip these seats to Democratic control and help to shift the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Similarly, Latina/o/x voters in California and Nevada stand to strongly impact the Democratic primaries as both states vote early this cycle with Nevada’s caucus on Feb. 22 following closely after New Hampshire, and California’s primary having moved up to March 3rd.
Gender matters for the men, too.
Kelly Dittmar, Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics
My own research investigates how gender shapes candidate behavior and campaign strategy. In my book and in analyses I have done in elections 2016 and 2018, I have emphasized (and shown) that the responsibility to redefine our ideals of political leadership – so that they are not so explicitly tied to masculinity and men – should not and does not fall on women candidates alone. Men play a central role, especially as they continue to outnumber women as candidates for office, in reinforcing or rejecting the status quo in American elections. Research focused on masculinity in presidential politics demonstrates men’s influence most overtly, but male candidates across parties and levels of office regularly make strategic and tactical decisions that maintain or reject masculinity as the standard by which fitness for political office is measured.
As we enter 2020, evaluating gender dynamics includes asking how men will navigate the gendered terrain of electoral politics this cycle. What pressure will be placed on them to speak to issues of gender equality (in policy and political representation) and/or to address their own privilege while making the case for their own candidacies? Does their gender strategy and/or behavior indicate maintenance or disruption of traditional rules of the game? And, more specifically, will Democratic presidential candidates – men and women alike – see the strategic value of contrasting President Donald Trump’s performance of masculinity in the ways they present themselves throughout the campaign?
Will there be another significant increase in the number of women who run for Congress in 2020? More importantly, what will their proportion be of the total pool?
Kathleen Dolan, Distinguished Professor of Political Science
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
As we saw in 2018, a historically high number of women candidates ran for Congress. The number of women running for the House and the Senate were significant increases over previous high totals. The most common explanation for this increase was that women were mobilized by President Trump’s election and the resulting activism of the women’s marches. After the election, we saw an all-time high number of women winning and serving in Congress. However, the overall percentage of women in Congress rose only slightly, from 21 percent to 24 percent. This was because, ironically, the number of men who ran for Congress in 2018 surged as well. In 2016, 1432 men ran for Congress. In 2018, that number was 1700. President Trump’s election appears to have mobilized all Democrats, women and men. As a result, women’s proportion of the total candidate pool in 2018 was consistent with previous cycles.
So advocates for women’s representation in office will be watching to see if there is another significant increase in the number of women who run for Congress in 2020. But, more importantly, we will keep an eye on their proportion of the total pool, which should give us a sense of whether women can comprise a greater percentage of the members of Congress after the election.
We’ll see many more firsts – not just more women, but more openly LGBTQ candidates and particularly more transgender candidates running (and winning).
Melissa Michelson, Professor of Political Science
In 2008, voters took a giant step forward on the path to equality by electing our first Black president. What’s the next giant step forward that we’ll take in 2020?
I think we’ll see many more firsts at the sub-presidential level, building on the 2018 results – not just more women, but more openly LGBTQ candidates and particularly more transgender candidates running (and winning). A notable groundbreaker here was Danica Roem in Virginia, who won in 2017 and is currently seeking reelection to the Virginia House of Delegates. She inspired multiple transgender candidates in 2018. That Rainbow Wave election also saw the groundbreaking victories of the openly gay governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, and the openly bisexual U.S. Senator for Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema. National survey data finds a strong majority of Americans would be comfortable being represented in Congress by a member of the LGBTQ community, and even with an LGBTQ president.
In addition to another record year of LGBTQ candidates and victories, we should be watching for whether this trend of increasing diversity will also include Republican candidates. Right now, of 765 openly LGBTQ elected officials in the country (0.15% of all elected officials), only 23 are Republicans.
It remains an open question whether we will see an increase or a drop in women’s representation across the two parties.
Michele Swers, Professor in the Department of Government
One of the big stories of 2018 was the sharp increase in the number of Democratic women elected to Congress, particularly women of color, and the steep decline in the number of Republican women. With many of the Democratic women elected from districts that supported Donald Trump in 2016, will these women win re-election? Split-ticket voting is declining, and it will be harder to sell themselves as independent problem-solvers when the House is consumed by the impeachment inquiry and has few legislative accomplishments to tout.
Some of the U.S. House races to watch include candidates Abby Finkenauer (IA), Abigail Spanberger (VA), Lauren Underwood (IL), Elaine Luria (VA), Elissa Slotkin (MI), Lucy McBath (GA), and Xochitl Torres Small (NM).
The increased number of vulnerable Democrats combined with a significant number of Republican retirements means that Republican women have more opportunities to run. However, they need to win their primaries. The first female head of recruitment for the NRCC, Elise Stefanik, reported recruiting more than 100 female candidates in the 2018 cycle, but only 35 non-incumbent Republican women made it through their House primaries and just one new Republican woman, Carol Miller (WV), won in the general election. Stefanik has now dedicated her leadership PAC to electing women, but the first women endorsed are all running in competitive or Democratic leaning seats. These races might be difficult to win with President Trump on the ballot, particularly the seats in suburban areas with higher numbers of college-educated women voters who strongly disapprove of President Trump. Similarly, in the Senate, many of the Republicans' most vulnerable seats in the 2020 election are held by women, including Susan Collins (ME), Martha McSally (AZ), and Joni Ernst (IA). All three were outraised by their challengers in the most recent fundraising reports. In 2020, it remains an open question whether we will see an increase or a drop in women’s representation across the two parties and in the House and Senate.
I’m keeping an eye out for double standards with men and women candidates.
Caroline Heldman, Professor of Political Science
Moving into the thick of the 2020 election, I am keeping an eye out for double standards with men and women candidates. Are women being judged on “likeability” while men get a pass? Are “scandals” sticking to female candidates that wouldn’t be news for male candidates? Are men with very little experience being treated as competent as women candidates with extensive experience? Sexist assumptions about women running for the presidency typically come in subtle but powerful forms that hinder their candidacies.
There has never been a woman governor or U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania, but if the pool of women with strong political experience continues to grow year after year, those ceilings shouldn’t hold for long.
Jennie Sweet-Cushman, Assistant Professor of Political Science
Assistant Director, Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics
While the country is captivated by the presidential election in 2020, I’ll be watching more than just where Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes wind up. In 2018, the state saw the largest increase in the number of women running and winning congressional and state legislative races of anywhere in the country. This growth is crucial if a diverse pool of women will be consistently positioned in the political pipeline to higher-level office, a feature we know is critical to women’s political representation. Pennsylvania, like a handful of other states, continues to have a glass ceiling that has excluded women from holding higher levels of office. There has never been a woman governor or U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania, but if the pool of women with strong political experience continues to grow year after year, those ceilings shouldn’t hold for long.
Will Elizabeth Warren be celebrated as a great orator?
Christine Jahnke, Founder
During the October debate, a confrontation illustrated how some still feel when a woman speaks out forcefully. It occurred when Joe Biden pointed a finger at Elizabeth Warren and insisted, “I got you votes” for the consumer protection bureau she proposed and fought for. Biden had earlier stated he was the only candidate who had “gotten anything really big done.” Warren ignored the outburst the way a mother might handle a willful child and responded that she wasn’t afraid to make big, structural change.
Warren is continuously redefining what leadership looks and sounds like. It’s exciting how she energizes huge crowds with policy solutions, not bombastic rhetoric. It’s funny when she makes light of a question about marriage stereotypes, not a reason for alarm. It’s telling when her personal recounting of pregnancy discrimination is initially disbelieved causing other women to share similar experiences.
What’s not surprising is that tech executives, bankers, and political foes don’t engage her on substance, instead they plot to undermine her credibility. These defenders of the status quo have had their say for too long. Warren calls out corruption while speaking empathetically for those who’ve lost the most. And voters are listening.
That’s the mark of a great orator.
Not more of the same.
Ivy Cargile, Assistant Professor of Political Science
California State University – Bakersfield
Many of the women of color who ran in 2018 are disrupters! They ran for political office despite being told to wait their turn, despite the fact that they would be running against popular incumbents, despite not having the support of their political party. In 2020 what will the political landscape look like? It is set to be quite similar with both gender diversity and racial/ethnic diversity. In 2020, it will be women, and women of color, who will make up a large contingency of challengers looking to, once again, disrupt the status quo. Similar to their predecessors from 2018, this group of women will not wait their turn and are already mounting campaigns in order to head to the halls of government and work to create a political body that is truly representative of the U.S. electorate.
A quick scan of some of the women who are already positioning themselves to run provides some insight. In the Illinois 14th Congressional District, Catalina Lauf, a Republican Latina, is seeking to challenge and replace Representative Lauren Underwood (D-IL). Similarly, Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, M.J. Hegar, Sema Hernandez, and Amanda Edwards are just some of the women who will be competing to challenge incumbent Republican Senator John Cornyn in Texas. These are just two examples of races that will make 2020 both competitive and exciting because of the diverse representation it might yield.
We are investigating the sexual harassment policies affiliated with 2020 presidential campaigns.
Anna Mitchell Mahoney, Adm. Assistant Professor of Women's Political Leadership, Newcomb Institute
Carly Shaffer, Newcomb Scholar/Tulane Undergraduate, Tulane University
The #MeToo conversation has grown to include a deeper analysis of structural cover-ups related to claims of sexual harassment and the lack of accountability for high-profile offenders. As we turn to consider the work cultures in which sexual harassment has been allowed to flourish, we are investigating the sexual harassment policies affiliated with 2020 presidential campaigns. Presidential candidates should not only be asked to discuss their policy solutions to this problem, but to account for their own organizational responses.
We have contacted all Democratic and Republican campaigns directly to request copies of their official policies, and we are currently awaiting their responses. So far, news coverage suggests a handful of campaigns (most notably Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Sanders, and Trump) have or had robust policies. They tout(ed) staff handbooks with explicitly printed rules, mandatory training sessions for new hires, and easy access to supervisors and hotlines for complaint filing purposes. These organizations boast(ed) zero tolerance for any and all forms of sexual harassment, an encouraging sign for the future of political campaigns. We will continue to watch, if more accusations surface, that these policies are actually adhered to and if sexual harassment and its response continues to be a polarizing issue for political parties.
On Sunday night, freshman Representative Katie Hill (D-CA) announced she was resigning from her position in Congress after allegations of an affair with a member of her congressional staff. These allegations were brought on by the non-consensual publication of nude photos of the congresswoman. Right wing blogs and British tabloid The Daily Mail shared these photographs after Hill admitted to a consensual relationship with a campaign staffer. Despite the high profile and public nature of this case, Representative Hill’s story represents an all too common experience for many young women. Nonconsensual image sharing, or “revenge porn,” has become commonplace in our increasingly digital world. According to the Data & Society Research Institute, one in 25 Americans has been a victim of posts of private images without their permission or being threatened with the release of these images.
Hill’s story raises many questions about harassment and abuse of women candidates and politicians. It also generates concern that the freshman representative’s treatment in the press and in the public could affect young women with ambitions of running for office. Will women, for fear of being the victim of revenge porn or other sexualized forms of harassment, opt out of vying for high-profile positions? As laid out in CAWP’s new report, Unfinished Business: Women Running in the 2018 Election and Beyond, the women who ran in 2018 undoubtedly faced a myriad of barriers to candidacy. Threats of violence and harassment leveled at women candidates and officeholders represent a particularly insidious hurdle to progress. The #MeToo movement shed light on just how pervasive experiences of harassment are for everyday women. Although there has been a lack of systematic data on the prevalence of violence and harassment towards women candidates in the U.S., it stands to reason that the heightened scrutiny and publicity of a bid for office would increase the potential for harassment.
A significant amount of harassment and abuse occurs online.
An online presence is essential to participation in politics, particularly for mounting a political campaign. However, this presence often comes with the cost of online harassment on social media platforms. Social media, where harassers can often remain completely anonymous, presents a new arena for harassment and violence against women political candidates. Analyzing messages on Twitter, a group of academics found that women candidates are more heavily targeted by uncivil messages than men. More systematic studies of online abuse and harassment against women politicians should be conducted. However, we do know that women in general are more likely to receive abuse on social media platforms than men. It is likely that this heightened abuse extends to the political realm as well.
- Harassment against women is often sexualized.
A 2016 study conducted by the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) of 55 women across 39 countries, found that almost 82% of those surveyed were subject to psychological violence. For 45% of these women, this violence included threats of rape, beatings, death, and abduction. More anecdotally, many women who ran in 2018 also described a constant barrage of rape threats and other sexualized forms of harassment. As we learned from the Hill case, private photos can also be weaponized against women in positions of power. These types of threats are clearly gendered and represent a concern that women candidates have to consider that male candidates generally do not.
- Harassment is often racialized and targeted against candidates with marginalized identities.
Women of color, LGBTQ women, and candidates with other traditionally marginalized identities likely face even more intense and sustained harassment. For example, transgender women are increasingly running for political office. Christine Hallquist, the first transgender woman nominee for governor in the U.S., regularly experienced abuse and even death threats during her campaign. It is far from inconsequential that Representative Katie Hill was the first openly bisexual woman to serve in the House. The 2018 election was historic for Black women. For the first time in history, more than 20 Black women will serve in Congress as a result of the midterm election. However, Black women candidates face the additional burden of race-based stereotypes and racialized threats of violence. For example, Vermont State Representative Kiah Morris (D) – Vermont’s only Black woman lawmaker at the time – resigned from office in September 2018 after sustained raced-based harassment and attacks.
Drawing from my own research, however, I find reason for optimism. In a large-sample survey study of U.S. women, I find that self-reported gender discrimination and harassment can actually mobilize women to become politically engaged. More specifically, I find that as experiences with harassment and discrimination increase, so does political efficacy, interest, and propensity to participate in politics. This comports with the literature on race and politics that shows how discrimination, abuse, and harassment can be the impetus to political involvement.
Women are not a monolith and their evaluation of threats and harassment will be varied. Although harassment should never be the cost of running for office as a woman, we should not automatically assume that all women will be deterred by the potential for this type of abuse. Women, like most marginalized groups, are accustomed to the fact that any type of bid for power or equality will be followed by backlash and resistance. #MeToo, the world’s first mass movement to tackle sexual abuse and harassment, demonstrated the galvanizing power that feelings of discrimination combined with collective action can have. In her resignation statement, Representative Hill wrote “Now, my fight is going to be to defeat this type of exploitation that so many women are victims to and which will keep countless women and girls from running for office or entering public light.” We will all be better off in a political environment where women do not need to fear abuse. However, until then, women will hopefully continue to harness the unequal conditions they face and use it as a catalyst for candidacy instead of a deterrent.
In the three years since Hillary Clinton “put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” the question remains, “Can America elect a woman president?” There have been countless thought pieces diving into the nuance of of the presidential campaigns of the women running this year and analyzing what factors make them more or less viable than others as we march towards November 2020.
It seems pedestrian to ask the counter question, “Can America elect a man president?” The simple answer is obvious, of course, because we’ve elected men in every U.S. presidential election. But perhaps raising this question would help to illuminate the additional work women have to do to first establish that they can win before going about the business of winning. Included in that work is calling out the biases that put women at a disadvantage in American elections.
The women running for president in the 2020 election, in a likely uncoordinated effort, are doing this work, holding a mirror up to the face of American politics in the hope that we, as a nation, will see what our bias against women’s leadership really looks like. But they are not the first or only women to disrupt assumptions or expectations.
It has been well documented that women attempting to re-shape elected leadership in America face the question of their viability regardless of their qualifications, experience, resources and know-how. Women of color are the ones most often crippled by this question. Early in 2019, as the field for the 2020 presidential election was coming together, questions swirled around Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams and whether or not she was a viable candidate. During her gubernatorial campaign, Abrams lost her election by 55,000 votes (1.4%) out of more than 3 million cast. She received over 250,000 more votes than the last two democrats to run statewide (Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn) and yet there was a question as to whether she had what it took to win. By all accounts Abrams’ candidacy changed the perspective on the possibilities that exist for black women’s executive leadership, particularly in the South.
Beto O’Rourke also came incredibly close to winning a seat that many deemed not competitive in 2018. He lost his bid for the U.S. Senate in Texas by 215,000 votes (2.6%), out of more than 8.3 million cast. O’Rourke was immediately added to the list of candidates declared and undeclared as discussion swirled in the media and the donor class as to who would be the Democratic standard-bearer in 2020. Abrams was not.
On paper, race and gender were the only two factors that differentiated these two trailblazing leaders. These factors have prevented so many women candidates of color from being able to get the traction necessary to have a successful campaign.
Why? In a recent survey, Fast Company found a majority of women entrepreneurs surveyed didn’t think a woman would be elected president because “sexism is still prevalent among the electorate.” Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds in their report that though bias against female politicians has declined over time, 13% of voters still report that women are less suited emotionally for political office than men. They conclude, “The role that sexism plays in politics is shrinking, but it’s still too substantial to ignore.”
So what’s a woman to do?
Most recently Kamala Harris asked voters at a Nevada town hall if American was ready to elect a woman president. The response from the audience was an honest but shocking “No!” The press reported it as a gaffe by the campaign, showing that the candidate is out of touch with the electorate, but I disagree. Though the audience’s response may have been different than the campaign expected (or wanted), it reflected the bias that Harris later elaborated on in her stump speech. In late September, she told an audience that she was used to dealing with the electability question, but added, “I have faith in the American people to know we will never be burdened by assumptions of who can do what based on who historically has done it.”
Though Elizabeth Warren has taken the lead in several polls and is one of the top fundraisers in the Deomcratic field, the question of her likability seems to be a hurdle she must clear for some as she continues to make indisputable gains in the polls. Axios conducted a small focus group of women in Wisconsin who mostly supported Warren’s policies, but doubted her electibility and her ability to lead based on how much they liked her style instead of her substance. This underscores the doubts some people have about women in leadership - that success is not determined by experience or background, as it is with most male candidates, but instead comes down to whether or not we like her. Warren, like Harris, has pushed back against claims that her gender will work to her disadvantage, emphasizing that she has proved doubters wrong before and plans to again in 2020.
Each woman in the presidential race has taken on the question of what makes them viable. They have answered the question directly and indirectly on many occasions. More often than not they answer by bringing their authentic selves to the campaign trail, speaking about their lived experiences as women in America and how those experiences inform their policies and platforms. By highlighting the difference in life experience from their opponents or predecessors, these women might offer an answer to the question, “Why aren’t we ready to elect a woman president?” Do voters fear that bringing more voices to the table will change the power dynamic too much? When we as a nation look in the mirror, are we surprised to find ourselves nodding yes?
Early in the 2018 campaign, Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), and I issued a note of caution about the gender progress we would see as a result of the midterm elections. Our motto was “under-promise and over-deliver,” noting that gender parity for women in American politics was not going to be achieved in any single election year. While many did not heed our caution (narratives of the “surge” and the “women’s wave” abounded), 2018 proved us right. Gender disparities and gendered barriers in American politics were not upended in a single cycle, but the 2018 election delivered key points of progress that will shape the terrain that candidates are navigating in election 2020 and beyond. The 2018 election also left those of us committed to more equitable political institutions with a reminder that we have unfinished business left to address in 2020 and beyond.
This is the focus of CAWP’s new report, Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond, which draws from CAWP’s unmatched data and a review of the latest research on gender, candidacy, and representation to outline what happened with women candidates in 2018 while acting as a guide for gender and intersectional dynamics to watch for in election 2020. A key section of the report outlines both the destruction and durability of gendered and intersectional barriers to women’s political advancement, reminding us that gender equality is a work in progress– not a marker of success in any single “year of the woman.”
Just as the story of gender in election 2018 is much more complex than simply celebrating a “surge” in women running and winning, so too is our evaluation of gender and intersectional dynamics in 2018 and beyond. But here are a few take-aways for you to consider in reflecting backward and looking forward.
1. Women candidates in election 2018 disrupted the (White male) status quo in American politics and challenged assumptions of how, where, and which women can achieve electoral success.
There is no doubt that women made history in the 2018 election, running for and winning elected office in record numbers. Non-incumbent women won at higher rates than men across most levels of office and were responsible for the majority of congressional, gubernatorial, and statewide elected executive offices that flipped from red to blue. Women of color made history at various levels of office and – perhaps most notably for the future – challenged biased perceptions that they can win over majority-White electorates; more than one-third of women of color elected to the U.S. House for the first time in 2018 won in majority-White districts.
Success went beyond the numbers for women candidates in 2018, however. Many women challenged gender and intersectional biases while campaigning, embraced gender as an electoral asset instead of a hurdle to overcome, and cleared hurdles that have historically deterred or derailed women candidates’ emergence or success.
2. But the 2018 election did not upend durable gender and intersectional disparities in electoral politics and officeholding.
Too often, the gender story of 2018 has been simplified to note the success of one group of women: Democrats. While Democratic women made historic gains in 2018, the number of Republican women officeholders declined at every level of office. Moreover, women’s numeric success simply chipped away at centuries-long exclusion and underrepresentation of women, and especially women of color, in American political institutions. Even amidst the “surge,” women were less than 25% of all candidates in 2018 and are less than one-third of officeholders from the state legislative level upward in 2019.
Beyond persistent inequities in the numbers, women continue to face electoral challenges that are distinct from men: party and financial support infrastructures vary by gender and race; stereotypes and sexism continue to shape candidate evaluation; women candidates combat sexualized harassment and threats of violence; and gender biases persist in media coverage of and commentary on U.S. campaigns. The ground is shifting in each of these areas, with positive signs of progress for women, but it is certainly premature to declare mission accomplished.
3. Early signs from the 2020 cycle indicate that women will continue to disrupt U.S. electoral politics.
While 2018 revealed the durability of gendered and intersectional hurdles to women’s political progress, it also provided evidence of women candidates disrupting both formal and informal rules of the game in U.S. campaigns. That disruption is likely to continue in the 2020 election. From the record number of women running for the presidency – and their unabashed (but also diverse) embrace of identity – to women who are no longer “waiting their turn” to run for office, the gender story of election 2020 will be well worth watching. Importantly, that story also includes the men – especially the White men who, perhaps for the first time, are being asked to address their privilege as a potential liability for their presidential bids instead of assuming that their race and gender identities provide only electoral advantages.
The 2020 election is replete with narratives to watch, foremost among them the impeachment and potential re-election of President Donald Trump. But evaluating the complexities of gender and race across party and levels of office in 2020 will be key to telling the full story of what happens in another historic election year. With just over one year until Election Day 2020, our report gives you a head start and some tips for what to watch for as the cycle plays out. So read up because the work is not done.