More female nominees are running for Congress and for governor than ever before in U.S. history. As a result of activism in response to the Trump administration, the #MeToo movement, and efforts to recruit more women to run, observers have pointed to the possibility of a “pink wave” that may bring big changes to American politics.
That will depend on whether female candidates win during the midterm elections. And although research shows that women generally win their races just as often as men, some reporting has suggested that female candidates aren’t raising as much campaign money as male candidates this year.
So how will women do? A survey I conducted recently paints a very favorable picture of the landscape. Across a wide variety of issues, voters see women as either equally qualified as men or better able to handle the demands of political office — even on traditionally “masculine” issues such as law enforcement and foreign affairs. In contrast to surveys from previous eras, the data suggests that 2018 is an especially good year for women running for office.
Here’s how I did my research — and what I found
I fielded my online national survey in June 2018, using Qualtrics Panels. Although not a probability sample, the data are weighted to match 2016 Census Current Population Survey benchmarks for sex, age, race, education and income, so it closely resembles the demographic makeup of the U.S. public. The data I report here came from 638 respondents who indicated that they are likely to vote in the midterms.
First, I asked respondents whether, when it comes to elected officials, they “think that women elected officials are better than, similar to, or worse at” handling a variety of issues than male officials.
In general, large numbers of respondents said men and women handle issues equally well. That was true on a range of topics, including economic issues (64 percent), foreign affairs (62 percent), environmental issues (59 percent), law enforcement (58), education (51 percent) and health care (49 percent).
On gender issues, however, female candidates had substantial advantages. For instance, when asked about reproductive rights, 57 percent of respondents said women would handle it better, compared with 6 percent who said that men would. The divide was similar on sexual harassment, with 52 percent saying female politicians handle the issue better and just 11 percent favoring men. I found a similar divide when I asked about women’s rights.
Those findings may not be surprising. But women also held advantages on issues on which they have long been perceived as less capable. Although most voters thought men and women would handle foreign affairs equally well, 23 percent of respondents gave the edge to women and just 15 percent said men would better handle it. Likewise, 25 percent said women handle law enforcement better, compared with just 17 percent for men. On immigration, it was 33 percent for women, 15 percent for men.
More voters think women would do a better job — on everything — than believe that of men. That’s new.
In fact, across all 12 issues in my survey, more respondents were likely to say that women handled the issue better than men — whether it was health care, gun control or other matters.
These numbers are notable in their own right, but even more striking when looking back a few years. For instance, in a 1987 survey by the National Women’s Political Caucus, which I found in archived data from the Roper Center, 46 percent of Americans said male candidates would do a better job of dealing with military spending issues, while only 13 percent thought that of women. In 2008, the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans indicated that men in public office are better able to deal with national security and defense, while only 7 percent said that of women.
My questions were worded somewhat differently. Still, the fact that most likely voters today say male and female elected officials are similarly situated to handle foreign affairs shows that American voters largely embrace female candidates’ capabilities in what has been assumed to be a traditionally masculine arena.
And it’s not just policy issues. I also found that respondents were more likely to give women the edge on other aspects of job performance.
For example, voters were five times as likely to say that women behaved civilly in office than to say the same about men — 45 to 9 percent. Forty-six percent gave them equal marks.
Majorities said that men and women were equally likely to represent their districts well, provide bold leadership, and be honest and ethical. But on each of those questions, about one-third gave the edge to women, and fewer than 12 percent to men. This was the general pattern on a wide variety of job-performance items in the survey.
Do Democrats and Republicans see female candidates differently?
When I broke the survey down by respondents’ partisanship (including independents who “lean” in one direction or another), I found some differences between Democrats and Republicans.
In all cases, Democrats were more likely to rank women as better equipped to deal with a host of issues than Republicans. This is to be expected, given that women in elected office are almost three times more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.
Nonetheless, even Republicans who gave the edge to either women or men were still likely to give female elected officials higher marks than men on most issues. Unlike Democrats, however, GOP likely voters gave men the advantage on gun regulations, law enforcement, immigration and foreign affairs.
Similarly, I found that female officials did well with both parties’ voters on the job-performance measures, with particularly large advantages among Democratic voters.
Some political pundits caution that marketing women as likely to do a better job because they are women may backfire if voters assume women can fix our extremely polarized political climate. But my data show that voters are receptive to women as political leaders and believe in their abilities. In all, there has never been a better time for women to run for office.