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Do Women Candidates Have An Advantage In 2018?

Attendees cheer a speaker during the Women's March "Power to the Polls" voter registration tour launch in Las Vegas on Jan. 21.
Sam Morris
Getty Images
Attendees cheer a speaker during the Women's March "Power to the Polls" voter registration tour launch in Las Vegas on Jan. 21.

Mary Wilson raised just under $40,000 for her Texas congressional campaign. One of her opponents, Joseph Kopser, raised $774,000, but she came in first in the Democratic primary for the 21st Congressional District near Austin and San Antonio.

Not only did she outdo Kopser, whom she will face in a May runoff, but Wilson also defeated two other men who had much larger campaign war chests than she did.

It just so happens that Wilson did all this in a year when female candidates have energized Democratic voters. So did being a woman help Wilson?

She says yes.

"If I would have thought about doing this 10 years ago, I don't think I would have been as successful as I was on Election Day this year," she said. "There's something about this time and this wave of emotion and resistance and frustration that have prompted women to get into the political arena in ways we haven't in the past."

Wilson stresses that she did well in the primary for a variety of reasons. Voters like how she talks about politics as being about "this very simplistic and almost idealistic idea that we should take care of one another," she said. She has enthusiastic volunteers. Voters like her experience in both education — she used to be a math professor — and the ministry.

But she also acknowledges that her gender played a part.

"I think being female helped me take first place," she said. "I don't think that's the only thing that got me into the runoff, though."

But still, her comments raise the question: Do women running for office have an advantage this year?

The answer appears to be yes, but as with all things related to identity and politics, it's complicated. Pollsters say women have distinct advantages this year— and many voters may not even realize how much gender affects their opinions of candidates.

Being a woman helps, depending on the party

"In all this cacophony and chaos women are grabbing people's attention, they communicate change, and they mobilize more peripheral women voters who tend to support women candidates," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

Women can grab attention, in part, because they're still not that common among candidates. Even with this year's wave of women, they're still far outnumbered by men.

As of January, women made up around 23 percent of both House and Senate candidates this year, only up slightly from 19 and 18 percent for those chambers at the same point in the 2016 cycle. By comparison, women routinely make up more than half of voters.

Because they don't fit the mold of the typical politician, women candidates communicate change to voters, Lake said.

That tends to benefit Democrats in particular: With Republicans controlling Congress and a majority of state legislatures, Democrats are the ones who want more change.

"In the 14th district, our community has never elected a woman to Congress, ever," said Lauren Underwood, a Democrat running for Congress in Illinois. "The only people that have ever come out of our district are middle-aged, white men. And so I think that there's just an interest in having a different voice represent our community now. And the fact that I am a millennial woman of color is very different."

But then, it's far more complicated than identity, she adds. Voters may be energized by a candidate who looks different, but they tell Underwood that they really want substantial policy change.

"If I was a woman who had a values misalignments with my community, I wouldn't be successful," she said. "But I do think that my interests and goals in public service are very well suited to this moment, and it's my community."

Women candidates will also tend to energize younger and single women, Lake said — constituencies that tend to be more Democratic, but who don't always show up for midterm elections.

On top of all that, there is one more, massive partisan difference at play.

"There is a very big difference between the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans on the importance of electing more women candidates," said Republican pollster Christine Matthews. "And for Democrats it's just a significantly higher priority."

She points to a January poll from CBS News found that 84 percent of Democratic women think that "more women in political office would make the country better," compared to 19 percent of Republican women. (CBS did not report the results broken out by men and party.)

For her part, Wilson says she has heard from women voters who say it's important to them to see other women in office.

"There are women in their fifties like me saying, 'I want to vote for you because I finally hear someone who sounds like me,'" Wilson said.

With the massive wave of women running or preparing to run for office, it's possible that women will hit record levels of representation in Congress, especially if voters are indeed more energized to vote for women this year. In addition, it could set the stage for greater racial diversity in office as well; Alabama has a record number of black women running for office, and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams could become the first black woman governor.

Voters think of female candidates differently

Regardless of party, however, voters treat women and men differently on a number of fronts — for example, ascribing different policy strengths to candidates based on gender, as a 2017 study found.

"We found that, in our research, Democratic women candidates amplify traditional Democratic advantages on issues like health care and education," said Amanda Hunter, communications director at the nonprofit Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which conducted that study. "However, they're still weak on traditionally weak [Democratic] issues like the economy and national security."

"Republican women candidates make up ground on traditionally challenging areas for women candidates like national security, but remain weak on areas like health care — but still fare better on health care than Republican male candidates," she added.

With health care emerging as a major issue in the 2018 elections, this could boost women candidates on both sides of the aisle, then, as voters who care intensely about the topic could easily trust women candidates more than their counterparts who are men.

"It is the one issue where men will say, 'Well, my mom, my spouse, my sister, my girlfriend tell me when to go to the doctor, which plan we're going to be on,'" Lake said.

Women are always treated differently

To the degree that women do have some sort of an advantage this year, it doesn't come on top of a totally level playing field. Studies have shown a variety of different effects that candidate gender has on voters.

There's the study from Barbara Lee that showed gendered differences on policy topics. And other research from the foundation has found that women candidates have to work harder not only to prove their qualifications, but to be likable to voters.

"The women who decide to throw their hat in the ring are supremely qualified and tend to be more politically driven and ambitious," said Victoria De Francesco Soto, a professor of political science at the University of Texas Austin.

This phenomenon is called "sex selection theory." And Soto says it is stronger for some groups of women.

"When we see women of color run it's essentially the sex selection theory on steroids" — by which she means, those women tend to show up with still more qualifications under their belts.

Controlling for candidate quality, one 2011 study found, shows that women operate at a disadvantage to men, all else being equal.

Then again, one 2014 study found that while gender stereotypes may affect voters' perceptions of candidates, those stereotypes ultimately have little effect on women's abilities to win votes.

One thing that does seem to be true is that party is by far more important to voters than gender.

"Ninety percent of the vote is determined by party identification," Lake said, "but in all of these close elections, that 10 percent margin can make a difference."

Some voters do consciously weigh gender in choosing a candidate. Other voters reflexively reject the idea of considering a candidate's identity (consider the debates over "voting with my vagina" in the 2016 election cycle).

But gender may affect many voters who don't even realize it.

"They don't store it that way, but then when you ask, 'Why did you vote for Susie Smith?' they'll say, 'She was in touch with my life. She was really exciting. She represented change,'" Lake explained. "And there are a lot of women voters in particular who are just going to do a hail Mary for change."

Wilson says that she knows Democratic voters are excited about women, but that she doesn't want her gender to play too heavily into their choices.

"One of the things I say on the campaign trail is, 'I don't want you to vote for me simply because I'm a woman,'" Wilson said. "'I want you to vote for me because I'm a qualified female candidate, and we need more qualified women in Congress.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.