Numbers Matter. Here’s Why.

When Serena Williams lost the Wimbledon final last weekend, some on-screen analysts and news outlets led with the number six — noting that this is the sixth time that Williams has lost a major final. They chose that number over 23, the number of major finals that Williams has won over the course of her historic career. This choice shaped the tone of the coverage, framing this loss as one in a pattern instead of emphasizing that it stands apart from Williams’ norm of success. It demonstrates the importance of context and framing in reporting numbers, whether in sports or any other field.

In politics, the work we do at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) is grounded in numbers. For nearly 50 years, we have tracked the number of women in elected office and, more recently, have collected data on women’s candidacies across levels of office. We know that collecting and reporting this data is more than just counting beans; these data tell a story about whose voices are being heard in politics and government (and whose are not) and help to illuminate obstruction points en route to greater diversity among political elites. To tell an accurate story, however, it’s incredibly important that we are clear about what our numbers represent and provide the context by which they can be best understood. This puts pressure on all of us to check the facts and, where possible, push journalists to do the same.

In their analysis of BBC news in 2016, Stephen Cushion, Justin Lewis, and Robert Callaghan find that only around a third of statistics referenced in news reports were both clear and presented with context; the remainder of references were lacking in either or both. While they tout the “democratic potential of statistical evidence,” their findings demonstrate the need for scrutiny, especially in a media environment that incentivizes the reporting of numbers that are eye-catching, or at least click-catching.

That’s why in 2018 we kicked off the campaign cycle by remindingjournalists and observers that a record number of women candidates was just one step toward gender parity in government; despite running in record numbers, women were still less than 25% of all candidates for the U.S. House, for example, and — even with their successes — they hold just 23.4% of U.S. House seats today. We also urged clarity in reporting other numbers in 2018 — such as those released by women’s organizations that showed heightened engagement or interest among women with their work. These data, such as the 16,000 women who signed up online to get more information from EMILY’s List about running for office in the first 9 months of 2017, were notable on their own and indicative that more women were paying attention to the political sphere (and their roles in it) than before, but they did not equal candidacies. When conflated with candidate numbers, it would be easy for members of the public to miss out on the very real hurdles that women must clear between initial interest and actually running for political office, let alone winning an election.

As we head into the 2020 election, there are similar risks of conflation. For example, recent reporting that describes a rise in Republican women’s congressional candidacies relies heavily on the National Republican Campaign Committee’s (NRCC) calculation of women who have expressed an interest in running for the U.S. House in 2020. That number, close to 200 by their recent count, is far from the 60 Republican women that we have determined as likely to run for the U.S. House based upon filings and/or publicly-stated intentions to run (as of late June 2019). This number is still notable when compared to the 37 Republican women House candidates we counted at this point in 2017, but it is far from the hundred-plus women that have contributed to a narrative implying a surge of Republican women candidates in election 2020. Moreover, the number of Republican women candidates should not be viewed in isolation. In 2018, they were just 13.7%of all Republican House candidates (while a third of Democratic candidates were women). Another measure of progress in 2020 will be how well represented women candidates are within their own party ranks.

Accuracy alone is an important reason for checking numbers like this as we head into our next election season. Our attention to numbers matters for setting reasonable expectations. If Republicans tout close to 200 women running in July 2019 and the final count of filed House candidates falls below that in 2020, the narrative will remain one of Republican women falling short. Likewise, if we emphasize raw counts instead of minding denominators that account for men, we risk inflating the sense of success that is possible. However, if the more realistic numbers are reported from the start, any gain in Republican women’s candidacies — and officeholding — can be touted as a win come November 2020.

When it comes to women’s political representation, in our experience at CAWP we find it’s best to under-promise and over-deliver. And while we know that success for women in politics goes well beyond the numbers, it’s key that we get the numbers right.

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