Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Don't look now, but this might be an excellent time for women to run for office

November 4, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Demonstrators at the Women's March on the Mall in January. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post/)

From Hollywood to the news industry, the nation has recently been confronted with the ugly — even dangerous — perils of being a woman in male-dominated fields. But a women-in-politics group is out with new research that's a palette cleanser: It's an excellent time for women to be running for office.

For voters, a candidate's party matters above all else. And while gender matters, too, historically for women, it has not been in a positive way. There are long-held double standards on likability, appearance and even having a family, for example.

However, now, new research by the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which aims to get more women elected, found that women are better positioned than men to leverage voters' low trust in institutions.

Americans are sick of the status quo. And since the status quo in politics is mostly male and mostly white, a female candidate can use that to her advantage to win elections, according to the foundation's survey of 1,500 likely 2018 voters.

Related: [Why can't women just be themselves when they run for office?]

“We surveyed voters about women candidates and are thrilled to see this is a time of opportunity,” said Barbara Lee, founder and president of the foundation.

Researchers matched up a woman from one party against a man from another party and asked likely 2018 voters to choose which candidate is better described by certain traits, such as honest, confident and a strong leader.

Each of the columns in this graphic compare each group to how men in the opposite party are seen. For example, the female Republican candidate has a 23-point advantage as being “a political outsider” compared with a male Democratic candidate, while a Republican male candidate has a 16-point advantage as a political outsider to a Democratic male candidate.

The trait advantages data adjusted for partisanship of likely 2018 voters in this memo are the result of head-to-head matchups between different combinations of candidate gender and candidate partisanship. (Barbara Lee Family Foundation/)

The survey found that Republican women are more likely to be perceived as outsiders than Democratic men.

Voters also think Republican women would do a better job than Democratic men on the economy and taxes. And a Republican woman running against a Democratic man can neutralize concerns voters have about all Republicans on health care and education. A Republican woman is also more likely to be perceived as more confident than her Democratic male opponent.

But unlike their Republican counterparts, a Democratic woman's gender doesn't help her to be perceived as an outsider.

When it comes to policy, the research suggests that Democratic women have a particularly large advantage over Republican men on health-care and education issues, though they are less likely than a Democratic man to be trusted on national security.

When matched up against a Republican man, voters give Democratic women major points for excelling in the personal side of politics, such as “being in touch with people, caring about people like you,” as well as being a candidate who will bring about change, take on special interests, work across party lines and stand up for what is right.

The new findings on voters and gender come at a time when women on both sides of the aisle are, somewhat paradoxically, becoming more engaged in politics. Since Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, nonpartisan and partisan advocates say that women are getting involved in politics in a way that the United States hasn't seen since the feminism movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) addresses a nuclear-weapons protest in 1978. She was the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado. (Raimundo Borea/AP/)

Anecdotally, seminars to help women launch their political careers are overflowing. Next week's Virginia House of Delegates election features first-time candidates trying to become the state's first female Asian American and Latina elected to the legislature. Two women of color are locked in a race to win an open state Senate seat in Washington.

“The morning after the 2016 election, I was concerned that women might crawl under the bedsheets and just try to recover,” Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, told The Fix earlier this year. “But here is this real sense that women can't sit on the sidelines. I think they've gotten, in a different kind of way, that elections have consequences and therefore they have to step up.”

Much of this activism is taking place on the left. Last week, about 4,000 women attended the Women's Convention in Detroit, which was put together by the organizers of the international women's march.

But Republicans are trying to capitalize on this moment, too. GOP donors are launching groups to help more women get elected as a counterweight to Democratic groups that have existed for decades.

That's partly out of necessity. There are only 26 Republican women in Congress, and Roll Call calculates that nearly a quarter of House Republican women aren't coming back next term.

Democrats make up the majority of women in Congress, but the statistics aren't much better when you fold them in. Today, women represent about 20 percent of Congress. Two states — Mississippi and Vermont — have never sent a woman to Congress. Ever.

Women of color face even more headwinds than white women when it comes to being viewed as qualified by voters. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that voters need to believe a black or Latina woman is running for office because she was influenced by a certain issue and is a community leader.

The challenges women face to get elected are as old as the modern era. But from disparity of representation to a meh 2016 election for women in both parties to a flood of allegations of powerful men sexually abusing women, the past year has particularly stunk for women.

This new research suggests that women at least have the opportunity to use gender to their advantage to win elections.

Survey methodology: The research was conducted over the phone Aug. 29-Sept. 10. The survey reached a total of 1,500 likely 2018 voters nationwide (779 women, 721 men) with oversamples of 200 African American and 200 Latino voters. Telephone numbers were drawn from listed sample. The data was weighed slightly by age, party identification and education to reflect attributes of the actual population. The margin of error for the total sample is +/-2.5% and 6.9% for oversample groups.

Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.

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