How to Measure Success for Women Candidates in Election 2018

June 23, 2018

We are now about halfway through the primary season and the results for women candidates are mixed. As the latest CAWP analysis shows, women have broken records and won major party nominations at high rates, but a “surge” in women’s political representation after November is not guaranteed. While much of the focus on women running in 2018 has been on the numbers, Gender Watch 2018 experts offer alternative measures for success for women candidates this year.

Below are responses from our expert contributors to a single question: How will you be measuring success for women candidates in election 2018?

After you’ve read these responses, share your own measure(s) of success for women candidates in 2018 on our Facebook or Twitter.

Erin C. Cassese, Associate Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University

Seats gained by women is the most obvious metric for gauging the success of “pink wave candidates,” but it shouldn’t be the only one we consider when evaluating the 2018 midterms. In the past, women have been incredibly cautious and strategic about the contests they enter. In 2018, women are exercising less caution. Many women candidates are running against incumbents, who are typically re-elected at rates upwards of 90 percent. It’s clear from their campaign speeches and their bios that these women are weighing the symbolic value of their candidacies against a strict strategic calculus of their likelihood of success. For this reason, the 2018 elections are poised to disrupt the conventional wisdom that “when women run, women win.”

As Kelly Dittmar has pointed out, it’s unlikely that 2018 will prove to be another “Year of the Woman,” in which women earn a record number of seats. For the most part, women are running as a pack of underdogs. In some ways this means that the effects of their candidacies will be less visible. We may see some unexpected upsets, especially where unpopular incumbents or those sitting in closely contested districts will be unseated. And this may set a precedent for more women to boldly challenge incumbents in the future. But many of the consequences are likely to show up in other places.

I will be looking at whether women turn out to vote at higher rates than in past midterm elections. I’m also interested to see how these women candidates fare in terms of fundraising, and whether they are attracting a new base of women donors. Women still lag behind men in terms of campaign donations, but this year may be situated to change that.

Some of the consequences may show up primarily in survey data. Past research has shown that the presence of women candidates on the ballot raises political interest and efficacy among women voters. Additional research shows that national news coverage of women candidates has a significant impact on adolescent women, encouraging a greater number of political discussions with family members and priming young women for future political participation as they come of age. By these metrics, the “pink wave” is likely having a significant effect on the electorate, even if that effect isn’t immediately mirrored in our governing bodies.

Rosalyn Cooperman, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Mary Washington

There are a couple of ways I’ll be measuring the success for women in election 2018.  First, I’ll be paying attention to where women are running for Congress, specifically whether they are running in open seats and/or as candidates in competitive contests.  Early primary election results from this year so far indicate that Democratic women candidates are significantly more likely than their Republican women counterparts to run in open seats and/or in competitive contests, which makes it more likely for Democratic women candidates to capitalize on the favorable electoral context.

The other way I’ll be measuring success for women in election 2018 is by examining the campaign finance activity of political action committees (PACs) that raise money on behalf of endorsed women candidates. Previous research by me and Melody Crowder-Meyer (forthcoming ​2018) reveals that donors who give money to liberal women’s PACs like EMILY’s List are significantly more likely than donors to conservative women’s PACs to give money with the specific goal of electing more women candidates. Liberal women’s PACs also raise and spend more money on behalf of Democratic women candidates than conservative women’s PACs spend on behalf of Republican women candidates.  Given the favorable electoral context for Democratic women candidates, I will be paying close attention to women’s PAC fundraising.

Melissa Deckman, Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College 

While success for Democratic women in this year’s election is linked to the Republican party’s embrace of Trump, the opposite strategy is likely working for Republican women running for Congress as the outcome of two recent races suggest.  GOP Representative Martha Roby, who famously disavowed Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, was forced into a run-off in Alabama by an opponent who claimed in ads that Roby “turned her back” on Trump when he really needed her.  Meanwhile, state Representative Katie Arrington defeated incumbent Representative Mark Sanford in last week’s Republican primary in South Carolina, whose apparent crime was being critical of Trump’s positions on trade and the border wall, by emphasizing Trump loyalty.  As Arrington stated at her victory speech, “We are the party of Trump.”

As scholarship by Danielle Thomsen has shown, primary voters often perceive Republican women candidates as more liberal than they actually are.  Of course, Thomsen’s research may help explain why women who are running in Republican primaries for the Senate and the House are having less success than Democratic women so far – 38 percent compared with 53 percent, respectively – according to CAWP numbers, so women who hope to succeed in GOP primary elections, particularly in conservative states, will need to show their allegiance to Trump perhaps in ways that matter more for Republican women candidates than their male counterparts.

Such an embrace of Trump will likely include his hardline approach to immigration.  My earlier research has found that Republican women are far more conservative on immigration and safety concerns than other American women; while polling data have yet to parse out how Republican women compare with Republican men on Trump’s extremely controversial policy to separate children from their parents at the border to deter immigrants from seeking political asylum in the United States, new polls release this week show that a majority of Republicans support it.   Little surprise that two women vying for the right to replace to Senator Jeff Flake in Arizona in that state’s upcoming primary, Martha McSally and Kelli Ward, have refused to condemn the policy.

Of course, American women more generally are strongly opposed to Trump’s family separation policy – 70 percent of women overall according to a new Quinnipiac poll oppose this policy.  So Republican women who successfully embrace these hardline conservative measures on immigration, for instance, in the primaries may face difficulty come November with women voters, particularly in battleground states if this issue continues to remain politically salient. 

Pearl Dowe, Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Arkansas

I think success for women in 2018 does include victories, but true victory is moving the needle to diminish or remove the idea that women don’t belong in positions of leadership.  The questioning of women in political positions of power happen when their credentials are questioned, when they are attempting to access the building, or when they confront the condescending tone of male colleagues in public hearings and proceedings. I think this process for victory is not just about winning the seat, but also reshaping the overall political apparatus that includes supporting and placing women in other positions of political leadership such as state party leadership, high ranking staffers, and campaign operatives.

Christine Jahnke, President of Positive Communications

One of the tropes of public speaking coaching is to “just be yourself.” However, it’s hard to be yourself when you know that everything you say and do is put under the microscope of voter and media scrutiny.  Such is the conundrum of the women candidates I’ve worked with over the years.  How to demonstrate you have the right stuff without as the pollster Celinda Lake says coming across as the type of woman who would bring a briefcase to church.

The way women candidates are presenting themselves this election cycle is different and I hope the change is permanent.  Women on the campaign trail are sharing their lives as moms, daughter, sisters, and partners.  The navy-blue suit and pumps are in the closet and they are donning rainbow scarves, baby carriers, and tennis shoes.  The change isn’t limited to optics but is even more apparent in campaign messages.

In TV spots and at community forums women candidates are telling stories they were afraid to tell in the past or advised not to talk about.  They describe overcoming sexual abuse.  We see them breastfeeding.  They are calling out racism and sexism.  They are claiming youth as an advantage.  The narratives are breaking through political discourse crowded with white, male voices and redefining what leadership looks and sounds like.

Women candidates are telling stories that need to be a part of the deliberations that take place in the halls of congress and state legislatures.  The 2018 elections are an important step forward in changing the national conversation.

Kelly Dittmar, Gender Watch 2018 Project Director and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics

In March 2018, I wrote at length about the need to measure success for women candidates in 2018 in ways that go beyond winning or losing in November. I argue that win or lose, the women running this year have the power to disrupt norms of both gender and candidacy. In my book, I argue that candidates – women and men alike – play a key role in shaping our collective expectations of what it means to be a candidate for political office in the U.S. In the images they present, messages they put forth, and tactics they adopt, candidates make decisions about whether to adhere to or reject the prevailing rules of political engagement – rules that have, until this point, favored masculinity and men.

Women this year are challenging the prevailing rules of the game by presenting themselves in ways that are authentic to who they are, not simply adapting to the norms of candidacy they may be expected to meet. Just this week, MJ Hegar  –  a congressional nominee in Texas  – released an ad that not only displayed her toughness, resilience, and love of country, but unabashedly displayed her young children and her tattoos, and told her story of breaking through doors that were closed to her – too often because she was a woman. Hegar’s ad  – and overall approach to being a candidate  – is reminiscent of others we have seen this cycle, where women embrace gender as an electoral asset instead of a hurdle to overcome on the campaign trail.

But this cycle has also displayed the diversity with which women candidates campaign and, more pointedly, the diversity among women candidates themselves. While some women candidates have made gun control a focus of their campaign, Alabama governor Kay Ivey  – like many other conservative women candidates  – has made support of the 2nd amendment a trademark issue of her campaign, even releasing a gun-filled ad with the message that she is “tough as nails.”

Women of color have also offered alternative models for candidacy and campaigning, like when Stacey Abrams wrote about her own debt and made clear the ways in which race and gender  shape financial opportunities and disadvantages.

Focusing only on seats won in November risks missing out on the long-term effects of women’s candidacies this year to both challenging and diversifying our perceptions of what it means (or looks like) to be a political candidate, as well as what it means (or looks like) to be a woman  – and, more specifically a woman running for political office. Regardless of the number of votes won, that is success that will last.