Democrats’ push to elect women is the biggest story of the 2018 primaries. What are the implications for 2020?
What I Learned This Week
According to a 2017 CNN poll, 83% of Democrats said the country “would be governed better if more women were in political office,” compared with 36% of Republicans. That is “more than double the gap Gallup found on this [question] in 2000,” tweeted David Wasserman, US House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Women’s political strength was tested again this week, when the biggest round of primary voting resulted in wins for 35 of 92 women running for a spot on the ballots in US House and Senate races. This puts the total number of women running for US congress at a record 521. Nearly three-fourths of these women are Democrats, and they are outflanking their Republican counterparts.
This builds on a trend that David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, observed back in May. At that point, primaries had been held in 147 districts, about one-third of the House. According to his count, women made up 43% of all Democratic nominees and 51% of non-incumbents. By comparison, women were just 7% of all GOP nominees, down from 12% in 2016. In a post on his website Honest Graft, Hopkins declared:
It’s apparent enough by now that we are witnessing a dramatic and historic change in the gender distribution among Democratic congressional nominees, caused by a rise in the supply of, and demand for, female candidates within the party in the wake of Trump’s election (and Hillary Clinton’s defeat). It’s equally clear that this development is not occurring in parallel on the Republican side. In fact, the GOP is drifting the other way.
The only thing more impressive than the number of Democrat women running is the number of Democrat women winning. Wasserman offers another history-making stat: as of May, in the 65 Democratic primaries with at least one man and one woman, and no incumbent, women beat men in 45 races; men beat women in 18.
Indeed, for women running in Democratic primaries, there is a “gender bonus.” Wasserman compared the actual results of those 65 mixed-gender primaries to hypothetical results had every candidate, regardless of gender, received the same share of votes. He summarized his findings:
Had votes split exactly evenly between all candidates, female candidates would have collectively averaged 39 percent of the vote across the 65 races.
But remarkably, female Democratic candidates have collectively averaged 54 percent of all primary votes across these races. This suggests a built-in advantage of roughly 15 percent for women running in Democratic primaries, [vs. 1.7 percent in GOP primaries].
“In 2018, Dem House primaries are coming to be defined by women trouncing men. Don’t forget that when thinking about 2020,” Wasserman wrote.
Much like the Tea Party in 2008, the so-called “pink wave” is a grassroots movement powered by small donations and voters seeking the opposite of President Trump. “A progressive woman is a good vessel for that,” one strategist told Axios.
But unlike the Tea Party, the “pink wave” is driven by gender as opposed to ideology. Pink-wave candidates are as diverse as the states and districts they hope to represent. And by virtue of their gender, most are running as anti-establishment candidates.
“A key reason for women’s success in this cycle is the desire for a fresh face and a break from the traditional political candidate mold,” writes Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report. “It’s not just being a female.”
Indeed, because many women candidates are running against other women, they cannot run on gender alone. They have to run on issues. Quoting Kelly Dittmar, of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, The Washington Post reported:
With a paucity of female candidates, “our tendency is to lump them together and say, ‘She’s the woman candidate in that race.’ The more women you have running against each other, [it] really brings to the forefront the diversity among women…as candidates and as voters.”
The ballots reflect this diversity. As of last night, there are 30 women in California alone going to the general election in November, including Young Kim, an immigrant and the first-ever Korean-American Republican woman to serve in the California state assembly. Two Democratic women advanced in Iowa’s first and third districts, both currently held by Republicans. One is Abby Finkenauer, a 28-year old legislator who could become the youngest women ever elected to the US House if she topples Rep. Rod Blum in November. Known as a staunch defender of working families, she’s fighting for fair wages, strengthening family farms, and making higher-education affordable.
And then there are incumbents like Senator Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota’s “prairie populist”, who has supported the Keystone XL pipeline and earned an “A” from the NRA. A “one-woman North Dakota Democratic Party,” as Politico recently called her, she’s fighting to hold a key seat for Democrats.
On the other side of the aisle, some notable female GOP candidates, such as Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, and Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, have stuck close to President Trump.
This surge of female candidates is poised to reshape state governments. In nine legislative chambers—the Georgia House and Senate, Illinois House, Kentucky Senate, Maine House, Montana Senate, Nevada Assembly, Texas Senate and Utah Senate—women account for half or more of the Democratic roster, according to Mara Sloan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Arizona could end up with a female-majority state Senate this Fall, “disrupting the GOP’s trifecta control of both legislative houses and the governorship,” says Charles Fisher, executive director of the Arizona DLCC.
Despite the diversity of female candidates, there are throughlines to their platforms that distinguish them from men’s. According to new data from the Brookings Institute, male candidates talk more about tax policy and defense, while female candidates are more likely to campaign on preK-12 education policy and campaign finance.
While men are more focused on international and business issues, women are homing in on domestic policy. These are issues where Brookings found a statistically-significant difference of mentions according to candidate gender (see following chart).
Despite its momentum, the pink wave faces a headwind: as long as unemployment keeps dropping, and the stock market keeps humming, Republicans can run on the economy. That is a difficult message to beat, and President Trump’s approval rating, which has risen steadily in recent months, reflects it.
On the other hand, women’s focus on minimum wage, “big money”, and other populist issues could be a winning “outsider” message. The “enthusiasm gap,” as Amy Walters calls it, may give women another boost.
“You can’t understand/predict the 2018 election without appreciating the role of the ‘intensity’ or ‘enthusiasm gap.’ The intensity of negatives feelings toward Trump isn’t equally matched by intensity of positive feelings. Watch this number going forward.” (See following chart).
If the pink wave is really a blue wave, and both are powered by fury at President Trump, then the intensity gap is something to watch indeed. We end on this quote from Wasserman: If 2016 was the year of the angry white male, “2018 is on track to be the ‘year of the angry college-educated female.’” Keep that in mind for 2020.