Just as a record number of women ran for office in 2018, so too did a record number of women lose their elections. Will a loss deter women from running again? A study of U.S. House candidates from 1980 to 2014 finds no significant gender difference in losing candidates’ likelihood of re-emerging.1 However, gender differences in candidate reemergence might vary by level of office, as a recent study that shows greater attrition among women candidates than men at the local, but not state legislative level.2 The magnitude of a loss may also matter, though the same congressional study shows that – if anything – women who lost close congressional elections were slightly more likely than men to run again.3
If they do run again, what are women’s chances of electoral success? A 2018 study by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation finds that an electoral loss is not detrimental to voters’ perceptions of women candidates’ favorability or qualifications.4 Moreover, the study offers effective strategies for pivoting from a loss to future electoral success.
Women candidates who lost in election 2018 appear to be heeding this advice and continuing a trend, at least at the congressional level, of persistence instead of withdrawal. As of September 2019, 69 (49D, 20R) women candidates for congressional and statewide executive offices who lost their 2018 elections for congressional and statewide executive offices had already announced their intentions to run in the 2020 election. These “rebound candidates” include candidates who nearly won their first bids for office in 2018, incumbent women who lost their seats in the Democratic wave, and others who are ready to run again. Their decisions to run again in 2020 illustrate the lasting and positive effect of expanding the pool of women candidates in 2018.
What to Watch for in Election 2020
After a year of record numbers of women running and winning, will the 2020 election bring a comparable or even larger pool of women candidates across levels of office? What will be among the diverse motivators for women to run for office in 2020? And will women candidates continue to push us to rethink assumptions about what makes for a good (read “normal”) candidate and/or a good (read “normal”) woman? Will enthusiasm for women candidates and support for women’s representation help women candidates in fundraising and/or at the ballot box? In contrast, will women’s gains in 2018 energize opposition seeking to curb their continued success in 2020?
The gender stories for Republican and Democratic women in election 2018 were very different. Will 2020 prove to be a better year for the recruitment and/or success of women in the Republican Party?
Topping the Ticket
Will a woman top the Democratic ticket for president again in 2020? What hurdles will she have to clear en route to the nomination? What effects might a woman nominee have on women running across other levels of office?5 And, if the nominee is male, will he select a woman as his running mate?
Gender Matters for Men
How will male candidates navigate the gendered terrain of electoral politics in 2020? 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 performance indicate maintenance or disruption of traditional rules of the game?
Interrogating the Intersections
As the racial and ethnic diversity of candidates increases, how can we better assess the challenges and opportunities faced by distinct groups of women and men candidates without reinforcing binary categories of Whiteness? Recognizing these and partisan differences among candidates will challenge any claims of a single story for women candidates’ emergence or success in U.S. elections.
What We Still Don’t Know
Extent of Opportunity
Women candidates took advantage of a nearly unprecedented number of open seats in 2018 to run and win. While some incumbent officeholders have already announced their decisions not to run for re-election in 2020, the extent of structural opportunities for women (and men) to contest especially competitive seats (open or otherwise) is still unknown.
Early indicators from 2020 show higher levels of women running as challengers to members of their own party than in previous elections, perhaps motivated by the notable primary election upsets by women who ran in 2018. But those cases were few in 2018 and it is unclear whether or not incumbent officeholders of either major political party are any more (or less) vulnerable to primary challengers in 2020.
Much of the research conducted on gender and elections focuses at or above the state legislative level.6 Investigating the gender and racial diversity of candidates for local offices, and also expanding research on the distinct factors that affect candidate emergence and success at this level, would be a valuable addition to our understanding of the complete atmosphere in which political power is distributed in ways that differ by gender and/or race.
Changing the Rules
While research from other countries suggests that women fare better in certain electoral systems and under different electoral rules, there is limited evidence of both what rules might be changeable and how those changes might affect women candidates in the United States. Additional analyses of multi-member districts, ranked choice voting, top-two primary elections, term limits, non-partisan elections, and campaign finance rules, among other areas of structural difference in state and local elections, might reveal helpful lessons about what is both possible and worthwhile in the pursuit of gender parity in U.S. elections.
The 2020 elections will play a key role in determining who will draw new electoral maps after the decennial census. Redistricting has historically created opportunities for newcomers to American politics. In 2020 and 2022, it will be important to pay attention to how redrawn lines might create hurdles or opportunities for groups currently underrepresented in American politics.
Candidates Combatting Bias
While we know that sexism persists in U.S. elections, the efficacy of tools and strategies to combat sexism at the individual and institutional levels are not fully known. For example, which, if any, voters will respond positively to candidates who directly call out gender and/or intersectional biases on the campaign trail? Or, as previous research has shown, is it more effective for candidates to rely on third-party supporters to push back against unfair or unequal treatment?7 What role do other candidates – those not subject to the same biases – play in pushing back against sexism or racism that their colleagues or opponents confront?
Media play a significant role in shaping campaign conversations and in combatting (or perpetuating) biases in quantity and/or quality of coverage that have historically hurt women candidates. But in an era of media evolution as well as ever-changing definitions of what or who media is, evaluating media’s effects on both the perpetuation and rejection of gender and/or intersectional bias is no simple feat. Analyses are smart to avoid emphasis on whether coverage is sexist or not, and instead evaluate how coverage, commentary, or even headlines alone reinforce gender stereotypes that might disadvantage women. Journalists can also play a disruptive role, recognizing and writing about gender biases (their own and others’) in ways that educate readers to think critically about the gendered landscape on which campaigns are run.