Evaluating progress for women in election 2018 requires analyses that go beyond the numbers. More women ran for office in 2018 than in previous cycles, but why? And how did women campaign? Asking both why and how women ran for office in 2018 and are running in 2020 reveals:
There is no single story for why women ran in 2018, but candidacy was among the tools that some women employed as part of the #resistance to President Trump and the Republican Party.
- While much of the research on and work to encourage women to run focuses on making the positive case for candidacy and officeholding, many women said negative emotions – such as anger, urgency, or fear – motivated their decisions to run in 2018.
- In many cases, and particularly among Democratic women who were responsible for the surge in women running, those negative emotions were cued by the current President, as well as the broader agenda of the Republican Party.
- But contrary to some claims, there was no single story for why women ran in 2018; women cited multiple motivating factors for their candidacies, and the calculations for candidacy varied across women.
- Among the record number of women seeking the presidency are candidates similarly diverse in their identities, paths to office, and motivations for running. At the congressional level, some women candidates who were unsuccessful in 2018 are running again in 2020, and others are running to reclaim the seats they lost last cycle.
With fewer incumbent members of the U.S. House running for re-election in 2018 than in all but one (1992) election in the past half-century, the 2018 election offered nearly unprecedented structural opportunities for non-incumbent candidates, including women, to wage competitive campaigns.
- According to the Brookings Institution, 59 U.S. House incumbents did not run for re-election in 2018. Since 1946, the only year with more open seats was 1992.1
The ways in which men and women ran for office in 2018, and are running in 2020, demonstrate (and contribute to) shifting gendered terrain in American politics.
- Women running in 2018, especially Democratic women, embraced gender as an electoral asset instead of a hurdle to overcome en route to Election Day. Likewise, women challenged gender and intersectional biases while campaigning, proving their power in disrupting instead of adapting to the prevailing rules of the game. Early signs indicate that similar strategies will be at play in 2020.
- In both 2018 and 2020, male candidates have provided examples of both reinforcing and disrupting the masculine dominance of U.S. campaigns. Democratic men have had to navigate shifting gendered terrain in both years, with male Democratic candidates confronting for the first time in presidential history questions about the potential electoral detriment of being a man.
Why Women Run
What spurred women’s rise in candidacies in 2018? This question became a focus of much popular media attention 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.
Research on the emergence of women candidates focuses primarily on hurdles to candidacy, identifying social, political, and structural barriers that women may encounter.2 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 hindered women’s access to the political sphere historically.
Some research has also pointed to women’s dearth of political ambition – the desire to run for office – as depressing the numbers of women candidates.3 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 for qualifications and competency, it may be rational for women to express more concern that they can meet those standards.4 Relatedly, gendered patterns of socialization that limit exposure to women’s public leadership and discourage young women from expressing leadership qualities and ambition may alter their political interest and diminish their likelihood of running for office.5 Finally, in a cost-benefit calculation, women might determine that the benefits of candidacy and officeholding do not outweigh the costs.6
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.”7 Likewise, recruitment and encouragement – particularly from political sources – are more influential in spurring candidacy among women than among men.8 Other research touts the value of less direct encouragement, such as role modeling, inspiration, and training programs that reduce women’s doubts and affirm the possibility of electoral success.9 Moreover, 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.10 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.11
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 see themselves or their interests most at risk.12 Evidence from 2016 and 2018 shows these emotions mobilized activism and voter turnout among progressives, women, and communities of color.13
Paying attention to the complex calculus that women apply in deciding whether or not to run for political office and recognizing the diversity in women’s paths to political candidacy will better position practitioners to encourage more women to throw their hats into the ring.
Why Women Ran In 2018
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. 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 2019.14 In interviews with women campaign volunteers for three women congressional candidates in 2018, Kathleen Rogers found that they attributed their motivation to negative emotions like anger and fear – especially directed at President Trump and the Republican Party – more often than positive emotions like hope.15
Women – and especially women of color – have long fueled protest movements in moments of turmoil and change.16 But advocacy has not always translated into political candidacy, due to both significant barriers to entry and historical exclusion that made extra-institutional avenues to effecting change more feasible. 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 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 their work. Also, candidates’ – including women’s – political experience proved to be a key predictor of winning Democratic nominations in congressional races.17
A review of non-incumbent women House candidates’ publicly reported statements of why they chose to run in 2018 shows, consistent with previous research, that policy motivations were the most frequently cited.18 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, now-Representative Madeleine Dean (D-PA04) cited as a motivating factor the electoral window created by the off-cycle redrawing of congressional district lines in her state. She 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.19 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 about running 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 Kristin Kanthak suggests that Clinton’s influence on women’s political ambition was dependent, at least, on their feelings 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.20 Another test of a possible “Clinton effect” found that exposure to Clinton’s candidacy increased enthusiasm and the likelihood of future political engagement only among well-educated women.21 Other data indicate 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 underrepresentation, that number jumped to 57% in 2018.22 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.
While there is little evidence to prove that Clinton’s candidacy had a directly motivating or chilling effect on the women who ran for office in 2018, her candidacy and defeat certainly made discussions of gender and representation even more salient. Both in the 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.23 For example, Fayrouz Saad, a Democratic candidate in Michigan’s 11th congressional district, told The Detroit News that it was important to her to give voice to Muslim and Arab American communities 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, reveals an alternative source 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.24 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.25 Likewise, a recent survey experiment 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.26 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 found that the gender gap in political ambition persisted 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 2016.27
Most of those surveyed by Lawless and Fox in 2017 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. In interviews with women who ran for the U.S. House in 2018 and lost, twice as many said that Trump had an impact on their decision to run as said it did not.28 Nearly half of all Democratic women non-incumbents running for the U.S. House expressed in public statements at least one of four negative emotions (anger, frustration, urgency, or perception of threat) as motivating their bid for office.29 In some cases, these negative emotions were directly tied to Trump in candidates’ statements, as 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.’” Even more directly, Rachel Reddick, a Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s 1st congressional district, 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, Shannon Hader, a Democratic candidate in Washington’s 8th congressional district, 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 it does 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 universal. Most clearly, the stimulating effect of the 2016 election on political participation and candidacy – as well as the negative emotions it cued – was limited to Democratic women. Little research from the midterm elections captures 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 size of government. Understandably, far fewer non-incumbent Republican women (just one in five) than Democratic women candidates expressed perceptions of threat, urgency, frustration, or anger in describing what motivated them to run in 2018, reinforcing the importance of challenging singular narratives about women’s political experiences, motivations, and behavior.
The experience and effects of perceived threat from the political system are also likely to vary by candidate race. Analyzing data from the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (CMPS), Davin Phoenix found that anger was a less mobilizing force for Black than White respondents during 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’.”30 In contrast, multiple studies, including one drawing upon the same 2016 survey data as Phoenix used, found greater political engagement among Latinas/os in election 2016 that appeared to be related to the heightened political threats to the Latina/o community apparent in candidate Trump’s rhetoric and policy agenda.31 This difference in emotional perceptions and effects appeared in women candidates’ 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 from White women than women of color, who have never had the privilege of feeling free of threat in American society.
Constraints on the public expression of negative emotions may also influence how women of color describe their motivation to run or make their case to voters. For example, intersectional stereotyping of Black and Latina women may induce greater penalty for appearing angry or emotional.32 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.33 While not definitive, the evidence offered here complements existing research that challenges conclusions that assume women’s motivations for and paths to candidacy are monolithic across race and ethnicity.34
Women Running in 2020
Already in 2020 we are seeing the same variance in women’s claims for why they have decided to become candidates for office. At the presidential level, six women entered the Democratic primary contest by February 2019. This not only tripled the record high for major party women presidential candidates in any one cycle, but also made stark the differences among women. In their announcements of candidacy, the six women describe various motivating factors. Elizabeth Warren’s announcement focused on curbing corruption, while Kirsten Gillibrand’s entry video focused on her record of accomplishments. Both Kamala Harris (“Truth. Justice. Decency. Equality. Freedom. Democracy. They are all on the line now.”) and Marianne Williamson (“What we share at this moment is deep concern — concern about the direction in which our country is headed, the assaults on our democratic foundations, and the erosion of our human values.”) emphasized the urgency of this moment and the need to restore values. Both Tulsi Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar problematized political divisions, but Klobuchar emphasized a results-oriented approach and record of achievement, while Gabbard embraced a theme of love as the way forward.
When Shirley Chisholm became the first Democratic woman and first Black person to run for a major party presidential nomination in 1972, she said that she ran, at least in part, because “somebody had to do it first.” Thanks to her and the other women who have waged presidential bids since Chisholm, women running today have more than one potential path to presidential candidacy.
Some women running for Congress in 2020 are motivated to run again because they came close to electoral success in 2018. Candidates like Carolyn Bordeaux (D-GA), Yvette Herrell (R-NM), Young Kim (R-CA), and Gina Ortiz Jones (D-TX), among others, are looking to turn marginal losses in 2018 into 2020 wins. And some incumbent women who lost in 2018, mostly Republican women including Karen Handel (R-GA) and Claudia Tenney (R-NY), are looking to reclaim their U.S. House seats in the next election. But 2020 will also bring a class of new women candidates from both sides of the aisle, including some who may have been inspired or mobilized by the success of women in 2018. That includes Democratic women challenging incumbents in their own parties as now-Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) did successfully in 2018, as well as Republican women running against the leftward push in Congress that they perceive as led by women who won in 2018.
Running as challengers to incumbents may also be more common for women in 2020 if the number of open seats returns to more traditional levels than we saw in 2018.35 As of September 2019, 19 U.S. House incumbents had announced that they would not be running for re-election.36 With more than a year before Election Day 2020, that number will likely rise, but it is uncertain if it will exceed the 59 open seats that created additional opportunities for women to run and win in 2018.
How Women Run
Decades of scholarship and strategy have considered how women run for office.38 Backed by research showing incongruity between traits voters value in leaders and traits they associate with women, women candidates have historically sought to prove they are “man enough” for the job by touting credentials and expertise more often assumed of men, especially when running for executive offices.39 There is evidence of success with these strategies, whereby women’s display of stereotypically male traits or expertise can assure voters of their capacity for political leadership.40 But research also demonstrates the potential pitfalls for women who, while proving their masculine credentials, violate expectations of their gender.41 That concern has caused women candidates to adopt more gender-aligned strategies that reassure voters, and even tout the benefits of their stereotypically feminine credentials.42 Still, women running primarily “as women” may find voters questioning whether those credentials translate to candidacy and officeholding.43 Taken together, these findings have pressured women candidates to do it all – to navigate what has been deemed a “double bind” where they must simultaneously prove credentials of candidacy and gender.44
Stereotypical expectations of and effects for women candidates vary by party, and by whether those expectations apply to perceived candidate traits or issue expertise.45 Scholarship has also emphasized that both men and women benefit electorally by adopting more complex, and less stereotypically-dependent, strategies for navigating the gendered terrain of political campaigns.46 And the relationship between voter demands and candidate strategy is not uni-directional; candidates and their teams have as much capacity to disrupt voter expectations as they do to adapt to them.47 Progress on this front is demonstrated by research showing that women can benefit from presenting themselves as multi-faceted, “360-degree” candidates.48 Included among the many credentials women highlight are those rooted in their experiences and perspectives as women, and more specifically as women with multi-layered identities of race/ethnicity, class, age, and more.
How Women (and Men) Ran In 2018
Hillary Clinton famously and frequently insisted, in her 2008 bid for the presidency, that she was “not running as a woman,” spending very little time discussing the distinct female perspective that she would bring to the Oval Office. Clinton altered her approach in 2016, telling voters, “I’m not asking people to vote for me simply because I’m a woman. I’m asking people to vote for me on the merits. I think one of the merits is I am a woman.” Democratic women candidates in 2018 seemed to follow her lead. An evaluation of congressional campaign websites in 2018 found that Democratic women, and particularly more amateur Democratic women, were more likely than other women and men to reference representation and/or diversity in their candidate biographies.49 In other forms of campaign messaging, we also saw women in 2018 draw upon distinctly gendered experiences as an asset to their candidacy instead of a hurdle to overcome. In her introductory ad, House candidate Amy McGrath (D-KY) talked about petitioning Congress to allow women in military combat roles, a rule change that helped to pave her own path to becoming a fighter pilot in the U.S. Marines. McGrath’s military service meets a stereotypically masculine qualification, but the context in which she presents that service reveals how being a woman has heightened her sensitivity to – and understanding of – gender inequities in power. When Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah unapologetically identified as a woman and a mother in her first campaign ad, she offered those identities – and the distinct experiences that they afford her – as among the many merits on which she asked for voter support. While her ad – which featured her breastfeeding – sparked mixed reactions among women and men alike, it was one of the most overt examples of a woman candidate embracing her gender identity instead of downplaying its influence in candidate presentation, strategy, and messaging.
In addition to rethinking and revaluing credentials for political office, women and men candidates can also work to redefine the ways in which stereotypically masculine credentials – like strength or toughness – are conveyed. In a 2018 primary advertisement, U.S. House candidate Sol Flores’ (D-IL) described her own experience of combatting sexual abuse as evidence of the fighter she is and would be for the people of Illinois’ 4th congressional district. She communicated toughness, but not the kind demonstrated by a show of brute force. Flores was not the only woman candidate in 2018 to offer alternative measures of personal strength and resilience as illustrative of her capacity to lead. For example, a number of women candidates shared their #MeToo stories on the campaign trail as indicators of both their strength and their motivation to prevent the same abuse of other women.50
Some women candidates in 2018 took an even more direct approach to challenging stereotypes and expectations that could otherwise impede their access to elected office. New York House candidate and now-Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) opened her first campaign advertisement by saying, “Women who look like me are not supposed to run for office,” directly confronting perceptions of what is “normal” in congressional elections. Like Ocasio-Cortez, now-Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) defeated an incumbent from her own party en route to her electoral success in 2018. But her candidacy was not disruptive only in that way; Pressley drew from her experiences and perspectives as a Black woman to make her case to voters. She also challenged voters to check their own biases in evaluating her performance as a candidate. At an October 2018 rally to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, Pressley took the podium and said, “I’ll tell you the truth – as a woman of color who has a platform, I have been asked to not come off as outraged or angry for fear of being labeled as an angry Black woman.” She added, “Well, I am angry and I am outraged because this is outrageous.” In this moment, Pressley defined the bias that Black women confront, forcing her audience to recognize what might otherwise be accepted or implicit, and then proceeded to reject that bias as a constraint on her own behavior.
The 2018 electoral success of Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, among other women adopting similar strategies, might serve as a rebuff to critics of “identity politics” in American elections. Scholars Sarah Allen Gershon, Celeste Montoya, Christina Bejarano, and Nadia Brown write, “While critics often misconstrue the politics of identity as fragmenting movements into vanishingly small constituencies, it in fact holds the promise of new avenues of cooperation.”51 This and other research has not only emphasized the need to evaluate candidate strategies within distinct political contexts, but also to consider the influence of multi-layered identities in how women and men run and how they are received by myriad groups of voters.52 The intersections of race and gender in candidate strategy remains an area of only limited research, but the findings that do exist reaffirm the danger of characterizing any set of campaign decisions as “running as a woman” or offering any single roadmap for women’s success.
In concluding their study on women’s campaign styles in 2018 contests, Maura McDonald, Rachel Porter, and Sarah Treul write, “Our research suggests that as the number of women running for office continues to grow, so too does [the range of] their presentational styles.” Importantly, they add, “The question remains though whether or not certain presentation styles are more successful.”53 More research is needed to determine when, where, and for which women candidates certain campaign styles and strategies are most successful. That research – and our evaluation of it – needs to grapple with both the intersectional realities confronted by women in different campaign environments and the multiple measures of success that we might apply. While the standard indicator for success in elections is winning (or coming unexpectedly close), making social – or institutional – change in political campaigns is also a form of winning. In the short term, disrupting expectations of both gender and candidacy on the campaign trail pushes voters to rethink what they value in our elected leaders and offers more than one path to victory for candidates. In the long term, challenging the masculine-dominated status quo in campaigning – and an even broader homogeneity in race, class, age, sexuality, and other candidate characteristics – expands the pool of potential candidates who will run and win.
The responsibility to redefine our ideals of political leadership 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.54
In 2018, male candidates offered diverse examples of disrupting or maintaining masculine norms. For example, in addition to featuring guns and explosions as overt symbols of power, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp’s (R) advertisements adhered to norms of patriarchal masculinity. In one ad, Kemp sits polishing his rifle while intimidating his daughter’s suitor into laying out his platform for the governorship. In this ad, Kemp is the masculine protector who uses fear as tool by which to gain and wield power. In contrast, 2018 Maryland gubernatorial candidate Rich Madaleno (D) challenged heteronormative conceptions of masculinity in an introductory video which featured his husband and children and celebrated the normalcy of their family dynamics despite perceptions that they are apart from the norm. These examples are important reminders that while so much attention is paid to how women navigate their gender on the campaign trail, men play the gender card, too.
While there is no single indicator of the degree to which masculine dominance was disrupted in candidate strategies, the 2018 election offered a healthy dose of examples of individual candidates disrupting the idea that there is a singular model for running as a woman, or even as a man. This diversity in candidate strategy has potentially positive implications for expanding the pool of people willing to run and able to be successful as we move into our next election season.
Navigating Gendered Terrain in 2020
Already in the 2020 election season we have seen candidates – women and men – navigate the gendered terrain of a presidential campaign in ways distinct from elections past. Multiple women candidates have centered their gender identity in campaign messaging. For example, Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign announcement presented her first as a mom and then touted her record on women’s rights. In that video and on the campaign trail, she emphasized an intersectional approach to feminism; she noted that “it is outrageous to ask women of color to bear the burdens of every single one of these fights over and over and over again” and educated audiences about what it means to have White privilege. Kamala Harris had one of the most memorable moments in the first Democratic debate when she drew directly from her own experience as a young Black girl to challenge opponent Joe Biden’s recent comments and previous policy positions. She said, “Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents said she couldn’t play with us because…we were black,” and added that she was part of the second class to integrate her California school due to busing policies that, she argued, Biden had opposed.
Elizabeth Warren has repeated a ritual she began in her first bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012. When meeting young girls, she makes them “pinky promise” that they will remember that she is running for office “because that’s what girls do.” Similarly, Amy Klobuchar repeats “may the best woman win” on the campaign trail. In these and other ways, both minor and significant, the women running in 2020 are contributing to the normalization of women’s presidential leadership.
Men competing for the Democratic nomination for president are also confronting and traversing differently gendered terrain in the 2020 presidential race. In the campaign’s earliest days, multiple men were asked about their commitment to a presidential ticket with gender parity, leading some to state clearly their prioritization of gender equity and others to fumble in responding to a question so rarely asked in previous presidential candidates. Joe Biden was pressed early on to respond to allegations that he has made women uncomfortable when invading their personal space; after nearly five decades in politics where Biden’s hands-on approach has been well-documented, he has been pushed to consider the ways in which being a White man with power might have made women reluctant to express discomfort, regardless of his benign intent. Beto O’Rourke offered an example of a stumble and recovery for a male candidate running in an environment where traditional gender norms are being questioned. When he told an audience in his first campaign event after declaring candidacy that his wife Amy was “raising, sometimes with my help,” their three children, he faced immediate backlash. The next day, he apologized for making a joke about the disparate responsibilities in his household, noting that he should have used the moment to acknowledge the frequency with which women still bear the primary burden for caregiving in American families. He added, “I hope as I have been in some instances part of the problem, I can also be part of the solution.”
Men running in 2020 have not only had to respond to questions around gender equity, but have also been more proactive in integrating gender considerations into their agendas and orientations to politics and policy. For example, the first line of Julian Castro’s policy page quotes Black feminist Audre Lorde, and his policy proposals go on to include plans to address the gender wage gap and underpaid care work. Castro also made news when he asked an activist for their preferred pronouns at a campaign event, marking his awareness of and respect for non-binary individuals and communities.
Other male candidates have proactively touted their plans to address gender inequities as integral to – not niched within – their policy platforms. Former Democratic candidate Jay Inslee was probably most overt in noting, as Gillibrand had, his own privilege as a White man and his responsibility to understand and address gender and racial inequities. In the second Democratic debate, when asked why he would be the best candidate to heal the racial divide in the country, Inslee responded, “I approach this question with humility because I have not experienced what many Americans have. I’ve never been a black teenager pulled over in a White neighborhood. I’ve never been a woman talked over in a meeting. I’ve never been an LGBTQ member subject to a slur.” He went on, “And so I have believed I have an added responsibility, a double responsibility, to deal with racial disparity.”
In 2020, White male candidates have – perhaps for the first time – been 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. As they craft their strategic responses, presidential ground continues to shift in ways that disrupt the dominance of masculinity and Whiteness.