Why Women Run

p style="margin:0in 0in 0.0001pt">WHY WOMEN RUN



What spurred women’s rise in candidacies in 2018? This question became a focus of much popular media throughout the 2018 election, yielding a dominant narrative that Democratic women – who accounted for nearly all of the surge in women’s candidacies – were mobilized primarily by the election of Donald Trump to not only increase their overall political engagement, but to engage as candidates for office. While Trump’s election appeared to be among many motivators for women’s bids, the stories about why women ran for office in 2018 are both more diverse and complex.


The research on women candidate emergence focuses primarily on hurdles to candidacy, identifying social, political, and structural barriers that women confront when considering entry into electoral politics.[1] Male-dominated recruitment and funding networks, formal and informal exclusion of women from political institutions, the power of incumbency, and gender biases in perceptions of who and what qualifies for candidacy and officeholding are among the myriad factors shown to have historically hindered women’s access to the political sphere. Some research has also pointed to women’s dearth of political ambition – or desire to run for office –as depressing the numbers of women candidates.[2]


But it is difficult to disentangle women’s reluctance to run for office from the deterrents that inform their decision-making. For example, if voters hold women to higher standards on qualifications and competency – as research shows, it may be rational for women to express more concern than that they can meet those standards.[3] Relatedly, gendered patterns of socialization in both the exposure to women’s public leadership and encouragement to young women to express leadership qualities and ambition to serve have the capacity to alter their political interest and likelihood of running for office.[4] Finally, in a cost-benefit calculation over whether or not to become a candidate for office, women might determine that the benefits of candidacy and officeholding do not outweigh the costs.[5]


What alters that calculation for women? According to previous research from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), women are more likely than men to make decisions about candidacy that are relationally-embedded, “influenced by the beliefs and reactions, both real and perceived, of other people and to involve considerations of how candidacy and officeholding would affect the lives of others with whom the potential candidate has close relationships.”[6] Likewise, recruitment and encouragement – particularly from political sources – is more influential in spurring candidacy among women than among men.[7] Other research touts the value of less direct encouragement, vis-à-vis role modeling, inspiration, and training programs that reduce women’s doubts and affirm the possibility of electoral success.[8] Moreover, research demonstrates that making an affirmative case for candidacy that emphasizes women’s capacity to solve problems and make positive policy change once in office can enhance their likelihood of running.[9] Importantly, CAWP’s research on women’s paths to political office suggests that nascent ambition is not necessary to spur women’s candidacies; instead, ambition and candidacy can arise simultaneously, courtesy of catalyzing forces like encouragement or shifting political contexts that alter their cost-benefit calculations to run.[10]


While much of the work done to increase women’s representation has focused on reducing costs and touting benefits of candidacy and officeholding, some research suggests that political engagement can also be spurred when the costs of not participating are deemed too high. More specifically, emotions like anxiety, anger, urgency – often cued by perceptions of threat – have been shown to motivate political engagement or action, particularly among groups who feel themselves or their interests most at risk.[11] Evidence from 2018 shows these emotions mobilized activism and voter turnout among progressives, women, and communities of color.[12]




The “surge” in women’s candidacies for office occurred after the election of Donald Trump and alongside heightened activism among women against his administration and his party’s policy agendas, leading to many media narratives that conflated the two phenomena. Research affirms that women dominated the #resistance; for example, they made up the majority of leaders and members of local organizations that took shape after the 2016 election, accounted for the majority of progressive activists’ calls to members of Congress in 2017; and organized Women’s Marches nationwide in January 2017, 2018, and 2019.[13] This is not new in American history. Women – and especially women of color – have long fueled protest movements in moments of turmoil and change.[14] But this advocacy has not always translated into political candidacy, due to both significant barriers to entry and historical exclusion that encouraged women to pursue extra-institutional avenues to affecting change.


In 2018, however, there was a simultaneous rise in both women’s activism and candidacy, at least among Democrats. While some activists did directly translate advocacy into candidacy, a more apt description of 2018 dynamics is that candidacy was among the types of political engagement that was cued for some women by the political context around and after election 2016. Still, the limited research conducted on what motivated women to run for office in 2018 affirms that women’s paths to candidacy were as diverse as the women who ran. Women candidates included long-time politicians as well as first-time candidates, activists-turned-candidates, and policy experts motivated by perceived threats to the work they do. And, beyond emergence, candidates’ – including women’s – political experience proved to be a key predictor of winning Democratic nominations in congressional races.[15]


In a review of non-incumbent women House candidates’ publicly-reported statements of why they chose to run in 2018, we found, consistent with previous research, that policy motivations were the most frequently cited. A commitment to service and advocacy, desire to promote democratic values, and devotion to finding solutions in a particularly contentious political time were among other motivating factors most frequently mentioned by women candidates. And while they would be less likely to discuss them in public, women candidates certainly considered the political opportunities afforded to them in calculating whether or not to run. For example, multiple women candidates in Pennsylvania cited the electoral window created by the off-cycle redrawing of congressional district lines in their state only months before the primary election as motivating their decision to run. Representative Madeleine Dean (D-PA04) announced her candidacy by noting, “This week’s creation of a new congressional district in the county I love represented and lived in my entire life demanded consideration.” In Florida’s 27th congressional district, the retirement of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) created an open seat for which multiple women were motivated to run. Republican primary candidate Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera explained, “When I saw that [Ros-Lehtinen] was not going to be running again, I thought that was interesting, and I had several people from the community call me and ask me to consider running.” She added, “I have been involved in community activism, human rights, economic development and international affairs all my life, and I feel that this is a good fit for me.” Many more women, especially Democrats, likely saw a political opportunity to run in 2018 after significant successes for Democratic women in 2017 state legislative contests in Virginia.[16] These electoral calculations are commonplace in all candidates’ decision-making, reflecting a consistent, not episodic or distinct, factor considered by potential candidates across election cycles.


But was there something distinct to women candidates’ calculations to run in 2018? One possibility was that Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, historic nomination and popular vote win, and/or ultimate loss could have influenced women’s likelihood of running for office in 2018. While there is no comprehensive evidence on the magnitude or directionality of any “Clinton effect,” research from Chris Bonneau and Kris Kanthak (2018) suggests that Clinton’s influence on women’s political ambition was dependent, at least, on their warmth toward her; viewing a video of candidate Clinton in fall 2016 helped to close the gender gap in political ambition among Clinton supporters while the same cue appeared to have a negative effect on political ambition among women who did not support Clinton. Another test of a possible “Clinton effect” found that the exposure to Clinton’s candidacy increased enthusiasm and the likelihood of future political engagement only among well-educated women.[17] And the type of exposure to Clinton’s candidacy might matter in its effect on women. A recent study found that exposing women voters to arguments that blamed “identity politics” for Clinton’s 2016 loss depressed their likelihood of choosing a woman candidate in 2020. This and other data indicates that Clinton’s defeat may have raised concerns about voters’ likelihood of supporting women candidates. For example, while 41% of women told Pew Research Center in 2014 that Americans not being ready to elect a woman to higher office was a major reason for women’s political representation, that number jumped to 57% in 2018.[18] There was no significant change in perceptions among men over that period. If American women’s skepticism about voters’ support for women candidates increased ahead of the 2018 election, there is reason to suspect that it could have had a chilling effect on candidate emergence, at least among some women. [Any other polls on Clinton effect?]


While there is little evidence to prove that Clinton’s candidacy had a directly motivating effect on the women who ran for office in 2018, her candidacy and defeat certainly made even more salient discussions of gender and representation. In both our review of women’s publicly-reported candidate motivation statements and in interviews with 2018 defeated House candidates, a desire for more representative government stands out among women’s – and especially women of color’s – motivating factors for candidacy.[19] For example, Fayrouz Saad (D-MI11) told The Detroit News that it was important to her to give voice to the Muslim and Arab American community in Congress, “especially in the critical moment we’re in right now, when Republicans in Congress and certainly Trump and his administration will take any chance to take a jab at these more vulnerable communities.”


Saad’s reference to Trump, and more specifically to the threat he represents to her communities, offers alternative sources of motivation to run for office in 2018. Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox explored “The Trump Effect” in a 2017 survey of more than 2,000 potential candidates for office.[20] They found that negative feelings toward Trump were strong among Democratic women, and that those feelings appeared to spur heightened political participation. For example, Democratic women who were appalled or depressed by Trump’s election were two times as likely as respondents who did not share those reactions to communicate about politics via social media, sign a letter or petition, donate to a candidate or cause, attend the Women’s March or other rally, and join a political interest group in the six months after the 2016 election.[21] Likewise, a survey experiment DeMora et al. (2018) finds that Democratic women exposed to Trump’s misogynistic behaviors and comments expressed heightened levels of both anger and fear, and that these negative emotions increased women’s reported likelihood of future political participation.[22] However, the tie between emotion and engagement is more complicated when it comes to women’s candidacy calculus. In their survey of potential candidates, Lawless and Fox (2018) found that the gender gap in political ambition persists after Trump’s election. However, they also found that among those respondents who had considered running for office, more than 25% of Democratic women had first thought about it in the six months after Election Day 2016.[23]


Most of those surveyed by Lawless and Fox (2018) were considering candidacies far beyond 2018, but there are indications that the Trump Effect was real among some women who ran in the midterm elections. Two times as many of the women U.S. House candidates who lost in 2018 that were interviewed by Shah and Dolan (2019) said that Trump had an impact on their decision to run than those who said it did not.[24]


We explored the idea of negative emotions as a motivating force in candidate emergence in our review of publicly-reported candidate motivation statements for non-incumbent women candidates for the U.S. House in 2018, finding that nearly half of all Democratic women non-incumbents expressed at least one of four negative emotions (anger, frustration, urgency, or perception of threat) as motivating their bid for office.[25] Unsurprisingly, these emotions were most common among Democrats, as just one in five Republican women non-incumbent candidates included them among their motivating forces for candidacy. In some cases, these negative emotions were directly tied to Trump in candidates’ statements, like when now-Representative Donna Shalala (D-FL27) said in her announcement video, “Everything we fought for throughout our lives is under attack under the slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’” (video) Even more directly, Pennsylvania candidate Rachel Reddick (D-PA01) told Philadelphia Magazine in April 2018: “I’m running for Congress because after more than five years on active duty in the Navy, I watched Donald Trump apply to be my commander in chief and win the 2016 presidential election when he had no business doing so.” Reddick added, “On election night, I promised my young son that I would do everything I could to fight back. After the last few months of my service, I left the military to become more engaged politically and fulfill that promise to my son.”


Other women candidates reported less specific but equally urgent threats. For example, Washington Democratic candidate Shannon Hader (D-WA08) explained on her campaign website, “We’re at a turning point as a nation and this is an enormously important election. It has never been more urgent to make sure we turn things around and steer our district, state, and country in the right direction.” Now-Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA07) told ELLE Magazine about her decision to challenge an incumbent member of her own party, “This is a defining moment for our country, and I believe it is a defining moment for the district. And I am refusing to play small.”


This evidence adds important insights to the existing literature on candidate emergence among women, showing the role that catalyzing events and emotions can play in contributing to candidacy calculations. But they do not prove that the 2016 election, Donald Trump, or other emotions were primary motivators of women’s candidacies in 2018; instead, they appeared to be among many factors that prompted women to make their decisions to run.


The limited findings from 2018 also affirm that women’s paths to candidacy are not at all universal. Most clearly, the stimulating effect of the 2016 election – as well as the negative emotions it cued –  on political participation and candidacy was limited to Democratic women. Little research from the midterm elections capture what motivated Republican women to run, though some of the most common factors cited in their publicly-reported motivation statements include policy goals, preserving values, supporting President Trump, and opposing an increased sized of government. Far fewer Republican women than Democratic women expressed perceptions of threat, urgency, frustration, or anger in describing what motivated them to run in 2018.


The experience and effects of perceived threat from the political system are also likely to vary by candidate race. David Phoenix (2017) found in a 2016 survey that anger was a less mobilizing force for Black citizens after election 2016. He writes, “Generally, African Americans appear to exhibit a bit of emotional resilience in response to an election environment that was characterized as turning many people ‘mad as hell’.” In contrast, multiple studies, including one drawing upon the same 2016 survey data as Phoenix (2017), found greater political engagement among Latinos in election 2016 that appeared to be related to the heightened political threats to the Latino community apparent in President Trump’s rhetoric and policy agenda.[26] This difference in emotional perceptions and effects appeared in our review of women candidate’s motivation statements, with Black women candidates the least likely to reference a perception of threat in their discussion of why they ran in 2018. Together these data suggest that it is the shift in negative emotions that matters most to catalyzing political participation; the changing environment after the 2016 election likely elicited more shock to white women than women of color, who have never had the privilege of feeling free of threat in American society.


There is another possible explanation for why the Black and Latina Democratic congressional candidates we studied were less likely than other Democratic women candidates to cite the 2016 election specifically, or negative emotions more broadly, among the factors motivating them to run. First, intersectional stereotyping of Black and Latina women may induce greater penalty for appearing angry or emotional.[27] Additionally, women of color who express frustration with the direction in which our country is headed have both historically and recently been subject to heightened levels of surveillance and accusations of being unpatriotic.[28] While not definitive, the evidence offered here complements existing research that challenges conclusions that assumes women’s motivations for and paths to candidacy are monolithic across race and ethnicity.[29] 


Even with limited data on women’s candidacy calculus in 2018, we can conclude that there exists no single story or singularly determinative factor for why women ran for office in record numbers in 2018. Policy motivations, political calculations, and electoral windows influenced women alongside catalyzing forces like the 2016 election, the sitting president, and the negative emotions those forces may have invoked. Taken together, these findings indicate that motivating women’s candidacies requires continuing to make an affirmative case for women’s representation – emphasizing the benefits of women’s inclusion into male-dominant political systems – while also signaling to women that the costs of not running are high.


[1] See for example Darcy, Welch, and Clark 1994; Niven 1998, 2006; Lawless and Fox 2005, 2010; Fulton et al. 2006; Sanbonmatsu 2006; Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013; Crowder-Meyer 2013; Kanthak and Woon 2015; Oliver and Conroy 2017; Shames 2017

[2] Lawless and Fox 2005, 2010

[3] Ditonto 2017; Ditonto, Hamilton, and Redlawsk 2014; Fulton et al. 2006; Fulton and Dhima 2019; BLFF 2012, 2014

[4] Campbell and Wolbrecht 2006; Lawless and Fox 2013, 2015; Wolbrecht and Campbell 2017

[5] Shames 2017

[6] Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013, 45

[7] Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013; Sanbonmatsu, Carroll, and Walsh 2009

[8] See for example Hennings 2011; Kreitzer and Osborn 2018; Ladam, Harden, and Windett 2018; Sweet-Cushman 2018; Sanbonmatsu 2015; Sanbonmatsu and Dittmar forthcoming

[9] Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013; Shames 2017; Good Reasons to Run volume; Dittmar, Carroll, and Sanbonmatsu 2018; see also Wittman 1983.

[10] Carroll and Sanbonmatsu (2013)

[11] Almeida 2003; DeMora et al. 2019; Campbell 2003; Jasper 1997; Kahneman and Tversky 1979; Marcus, MacKuen, and Neuman 2000; Miller et al. 2016; Miller and Krosnick 2004; Parker and Barreto 2013; Tilly 1978; Valentino et al. 2008; Valentino et al. 2011; Van Dyke and Soule 2002

[12] Bunyasi and Smith 2018; Gutierrez et al. 2019; Lopez, Gonzalez-Barrera, and Krogstad 2018; Pantoja 2018; Putnam and Skocpol 2018; Towler and Parker 2018; for exception/nuance see Phoenix 2017

[14] See for example Giddings 2007; Wolbrecht 2018 [MORE?]

[17] Demora et al. 2018

[19] Dittmar 2019; Shah and Dolan 2019

[20] “Potential candidates” included full-time employed, college-educated women and men in Lawless and Fox’s study.

[21] Lawless and Fox 2018, 673

[22] DeMora et al. 2018

[23] Among survey respondents, Democratic women were nearly three times more likely than Democratic men to have first thought about running for office within the six months of Trump’s election. Lawless and Fox (P, 676)

[24] Shah and Dolan (2019, 6)

[25] Publicly-reported statements include candidate statements made on their campaign websites, social media, and/or in public interviews with media.

[26] Gutierrez et al. 2018; Lopez, Gonzalez-Barrera, and Krogstad 2018; Pantoja 2018

[27] Chemaly 2018; Cooper 2018; Torres 2003; Traister 2018

[28] See [articles on The Squad]

[29] Silva and Skulley 2018; Shah, Scott, and Juenke 2019; Holman and Schneider 2018