Women candidates: how to win the second time around

One Pagers

By Susan Green, IWPR Affiliated Researcher

In the election of 1992, dubbed “the Year of the Woman,” the numbers of women in Congress doubled overnight after an all-male Senate committee grilled Anita Hill about her allegations of experiencing sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, nominated for the Supreme Court by President George Herbert Walker Bush.  Those numbers stagnated for more than 20 years. Now, in 2018, we are seeing what might be called “The Year of the Woman 2.0.” Some observers point to Donald Trump’s 2016 election as a motivating factor coupled with the huge Women’s March of 4.2 million the day after his inauguration. Others cite the #MeToo movement, which is bringing to media attention many incidents of sexual assault, violence, and harassment committed by high-ranking public figures across the occupational landscape.

Whatever the causes, the evidence shows that a record number of women are seeking elective office in 2018.  According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, as of October 4, 2018:

  • 23 women were seeking U.S. Senate seats
  • 239 women were candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives
  • 16 were campaigning for state Governor positions
  • 3,381 were running for seats in their state legislatures

In every instance, these numbers shatter previous records for the numbers of women candidates. And thousands more women doubtless are running for office at the district, county, and local levels.

Some races feature two women facing off for election to the same office. In these contests one woman will win and the other will go down to defeat on Election Day. In other instances, the voters may elect a male candidate instead of his female opponent. How can these women stay on the path to elected office despite such losses? Additionally, how can women elected to lower office continue on the career path to higher office? A 2014 IWPR report provides answers.

In May 2014, IWPR published its analysis of the Achieving Parity Study funded by Political Parity, a nonpartisan program of the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Building Women’s Political Careers: Strengthening the Pipeline to Higher Office assesses the results of 45 interviews with experienced candidates and officeholders and several focus groups with elected state legislators, young elected officials, and congressional staff members interested in running for office. The goal was to investigate how women make the decision to run and how they develop their political careers, with a focus on seeking office or achieving higher office.

Despite the different context in 2018, the study’s findings and recommendations illuminate the path forward for this year’s successful and unsuccessful women candidates. For example, the study notes that fundraising is essential for electoral victory – yet women candidates face substantial gendered barriers in this regard. Experienced officeholders and candidates say “the ask” can be readily learned, but they also identify “sponsorship”—individuals who introduce candidates to moneyed connections and provide material support—as a key element to overcoming the fundraising gap. A well-connected, experienced political leader can help aspiring candidates meet and develop lasting and meaningful relationships with potential supporters, which may make all the difference for women candidates on the campaign trail.

A second finding involves long-term strategic advice. The study emphasizes the role of experienced women candidates in providing career-building guidance to young women.  Experienced candidates can help their novice counterparts develop long-term plans – such as getting appointed to non-elective political offices to build name recognition – and strategically position themselves for electoral success in future campaigns, especially between stints of elective office or after an election loss. The report also notes that many women initially enter the political sphere in order to provide public service, and many worked in community and issue organizations as their stepping stone to elective office. For others, service in issue-oriented organizations can help second-time candidates gain valuable experience in how to achieve policy and political success, as well as provide access to the officeholders, party leaders, and potential supporters whose assistance may be critical to a successful campaign.

The report also highlights a number of structural barriers that female candidates still face when running for office. In addition to changes to the ways political parties recruit candidates and campaign finance reform, the women interviewed cited a desire for more family-friendly policies as a pressing need for candidates running for office, including making the campaigns and offices sought more family friendly.

The full report, which offers a host of findings and recommendations and lively quotes from women who are candidates or office holders seeking to move up can be found here.