Will Promoting Gender Equality Be a Winning Strategy for Women Candidates in the Midterms?

July 24, 2018

I wrote earlier this year about how American attitudes concerning sexual harassment may impact voters in this year’s midterm elections, finding that while sexual harassment is a concern that is viewed seriously by most Americans, including many Republicans, party trumps attitudes about sexual harassment when it comes to vote choice.

Left unanswered, however, is whether attitudes about gender quality more generally will serve to boost turnout this election cycle, particularly among Democrats and women?   Anecdotally, many female candidates among the record number of women running for office in 2018 have stated that the #MeToo movement, the larger women’s movement and the election of Trump inspired their decision to run.   How much do voters prioritize gender equality as a critical issue?  And, will running on such gender equality platforms be helpful for Democratic candidates, more generally, and women candidates, more specifically, come November?

To help address these questions, I turn to data from a national, online survey of 1,100 Americans that I conducted using Qualtrics Panels during the week of June 18-22, 2018. (I have weighted the data to match the U.S. population in terms of sex, age, race, education and income.)  I asked Americans whether gender equality was an issue of critical importance to them personally, one among many important issues or not that important of an issue.  Among all Americans, 32 percent said it is a critical issue, 42 percent said it was one among many important issues and 27 percent said it was not an important issue at all.

Interestingly, women are no more likely than men to identify gender equality as a critical issue to them personally.  However, controlling for party reveals some interesting gender dynamics.  Democrats were more than twice as likely to say that gender quality was a critical issue—46 percent—than Republicans—21 percent.  (Here, party leaners are coded as partisans).  Yet, when controlling for gender, the group most likely to say that gender equality was not a critical issue for them personally was Republican women. As my previous work about Tea Party women demonstrates, conservative women often reject the notion that women are unequal compared with men or explain the disparate outcomes that women face, such as making less money than men, as a result of their own choices and not overt discrimination.

I also asked Americans about their likelihood of voting this fall as well as their likely vote choice.   According to my survey, 58 percent of Americans say they intend to vote this November in the midterm elections, with another 18 percent indicating that they “probably” are likely to vote.  While we can take such intentions with a grain of salt—midterm election turnouts average about 40 percent—I am interested to see if Americans who personally care about gender equality are more likely to say they intend to vote than those who do not.  And I find that they do: 65 percent of Americans who say gender equality is an issue that critically important to them indicate that they are absolutely certain to vote, compared with just 54 percent of those Americans who claim gender equality is one among many important issues and 56 percent who say that the issue is not at all important.

Moreover, the intended vote choice among those Americans who believe gender equality is a critical issue is strongly linked to party: 62 percent of Americans who think that gender equality is a critical issue to them plan to vote for a Democrat for House (or if they are undecided, they are leaning toward the Democrat); by contrast, just one in four of those Americans who view gender equality as a critical issue plan to cast their ballot for a Republican.  More than half of Americans who believe gender equality is not that important (57 percent) plan to vote for a Republican.

Finally, I gauged Americans’ perceptions of gender advantages on particular policy issues. While most Americans believe that women elected officials are best at handling women’s issues compared with men elected officials, women Democrats especially agree with this sentiment.

How can we interpret these findings?  When it comes to campaign issues, women candidates may likely be viewed as having higher levels of moral authority when it comes to representing women’s issues.  So when women candidates running for office run ads sharing their personal stories about overcoming gender discrimination, such as Amy McGrath in Kentucky or MJ Heger in Texas, it’s not surprising that their ads have gone viral and their stories have been embraced by women voters, especially Democratic women. Showing a willingness to run as women, even as mothers, may be proving to be a political asset this election cycle, at least for women candidates who are running in competitive or progressive districts.   But it is important to note that not all women candidates who have embraced such themes have been successful so far, even in Democratic primaries, perhaps reflecting the reality that there are far more Americans who don’t view gender equality as a critical issue to them personally than there are those who do.

Even though those Americans who view gender equality as a critical issue are more likely to indicate a willingness to vote than those who don’t (and are more likely to indicate a desire to vote for Democrats), whatever slight advantage such passion about gender equality may provoke in terms of energy and enthusiasm about voting is likely outweighed by the fact that the majority of voters view gender equality as just one among many important issues or do not view it as important at all.

In fact, I find that Americans prioritize other issues as being more critical to them personally than gender equality, such as healthcare (63 percent), immigration (53 percent), gun regulations (50 percent) jobs and unemployment (46 percent) and income inequality (41 percent).  Indeed, Brookings found this spring in an analysis of the issues most frequently discussed by congressional candidates running in the primary season that gender equality is not included.  Both male (78 percent) and female (80 percent) candidates are most likely to discuss health care and the Affordable Care Act.  Male candidates are then most likely to discuss taxes, immigration, guns and abortion while female candidates are most likely to discuss guns, Pre-K education, abortion and immigration.

So, while gender equality may be important to Democratic voters, particularly Millennials, it is likely best viewed as one issue among many.  Similar to the #MeToo movement, the issue is resonating with some voters, but whether it can be a galvanizing force in November is likely doubtful.

Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College and chairs the board of PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute.