Women Candidates Can Win. . . When They Run

Perception and Reality         

Jody Newman

        When women run for office, they win as often as men do. The National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) in 1994 conducted a comprehensive study of the success of men and women candidates in general elections for state senate, state house, U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor from 1986-1992 and found that a candidate's sex did not affect his or her chances of winning general elections.

Incumbency the Problem, not Gender Bias

        Although women are 51% of the population and 53% of voters in 1992, they make up only 11% of U.S. House members, 7% of U.S. Senators, 8% of governors and 21% of state legislators. The research clearly shows that electoral success has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with incumbency. One reason for the common perception that women have a tougher time winning elections than men is that most incumbents are men, and incumbents win far more often than challengers and open seat candidates.
        But when comparing men running as incumbents to women running as incumbents, men running for open seats to women running for open seats and men running as challengers to women running as challengers, men had no advantage over women -- women won as high a percentage of their races as men.
        Based on the overwhelming weight of the data gathered, the conclusion is clear: a candidate's sex does not affect his or her chances of winning general elections. The following are some of the study's key findings:
        • State House: The success rates for men and women running in general elections for state house were almost identical. Incumbent women won 95% of their races compared to 94% for incumbent men. Women running for open seats won 52% of their elections, compared to 53% for men. Female challengers won 10% of their races, compared to 9% for men.
        • State Senate: Women running in general elections for state senate did as well as men -- if not better. Female incumbents won 91% of their elections and male incumbents 92%. Women running for open seats won 58% of their races, compared to 55% for men. Female challengers won 16% of their races, compared to 11% for men.
        • U.S. House: The study found no significant difference between success rates for men and women running in general elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. Incumbent women won 96% of their races compared to 95% for men; 48% of women running for open seats won compared to 51% of men; and female challengers won 4% of their races compared to 6% for male challengers.
        • U.S. Senate and Governor: Just 53 women have run for the U.S. Senate and 33 for governor in general elections since 1972 -- too small a number to make meaningful generalizations or comparisons between men and women. The study found no evidence that women were less likely than men to win these offices, or that women were less likely to win a race for the executive office of governor than a race for the U.S. Senate.
        • Incumbent Opposition: Women incumbents had opposition more frequently than men did. However, female incumbents with opposition won at least as high a percentage of their re-election bids as did male incumbents who had opposition for state house, state senate and U.S. House.
        • Year of the Woman: Although 1992 was called "the Year of the Woman" in politics, success rates for women were still extremely similar to those for men. Women won no more often than men in 1992, just as they won no less often than men in earlier years.
        • Not Enough Women Run: Women have made up an extremely low percentage of general election candidates, particularly for higher office. Since 1972, only 7% of candidates for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and only 6% of gubernatorial candidates have been women. Just 20% of state legislative candidates were women during the last four election cycles. There is a striking similarity between the percentage of office holders who are women and the percentage of candidates who have been women.
        • Party: In general elections at every level of office, women comprised a higher percentage of Democratic candidates than Republican candidates. By 1992, women made up almost one-third of Democratic non-incumbent candidates running for state legislature and one-fourth of Democratic non-incumbent candidates for the U.S. House. Democratic candidates won more of their races than Republican candidates at every level of office for every type of race, regardless of sex.
        • The Incumbent Advantage: The study found a huge disparity between success rates for incumbents and challengers. U.S. House members won 95% of their re-election bids (almost 16 times as often as challengers); state representatives 94% (more than ten times as often as challengers); state senators 92% (almost eight times as often as challengers); U.S. Senators 82% (more than four times as often as challengers); and governors 77% (more than three times as often as challengers).
        • Open Seats: The study found that candidates for open seats (where no incumbent is running) were anywhere from two to nine times as likely to win as challengers. 45% of those elected governor between 1972 and 1993 won in open seat races in the general election. Open seats offer the best opportunities for non-incumbent candidates, but women made up only 7% of open seat gubernatorial candidates, 8% for U.S. Senate, 10% for U.S. House, 19% for state senate and 24% for state house.

Multi-Member Districts May Help Women

        (Editors' note: One section of "Perception and Reality" of particular interest to advocates of proportional systems in multi-member districts was a comparison of success rates of men and women when candidates ran in single-member districts and when they ran in multi-member districts.)
        Ten states elect some of their state legislators in multi-member districts (all using plurality voting): Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
        To look at the effect of multi-member districts on success rates, a separate analysis was done with the candidates divided into those who ran in multi-member districts and those who ran in single-member districts. (State house and state senate were combined for this analysis).
        In multi-member districts, female incumbents did better than male incumbents (95% won compared to 91%). In single-member districts, female challengers did better than male challengers (11% compared to 9%).
        When comparing the effect of single-member districts to multi-member districts without regard to incumbency, women did better than men in multi-member districts (62% won compared to 59%) and worse than men in single-member districts (58% compared to 62%).
        The study also found that a greater percentage of the candidates were women in multi-member districts than in single-member districts. This was true for each of the categories -- incumbents, open seat candidates and challengers.
        It is unclear whether these differences arose because the districts were multi-member, or because of some other factor or factors. The subject is beyond the scope of this study and warrants further analysis.

        This article is from Perception and Reality, a 1994 study by the National Women's Political Caucus. Jody Newman is executive director of the Caucus and was political director of the Women's Campaign Fund in 1983-84. For information, contact the Caucus at: 1211 Connecticut Avenue, NW, #425, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 785-1100.

Women in the 1994 Elections

        Despite a record number of women candidates in 1994, the number of women in Congress remains nearly the same. In the House, 112 women candidates ran. The 47 winners keep the number of female representatives the same as in 1992. The number of women senators increased from 7 to 8, as 3 of 9 Senate candidates won. These results pale in comparison to 1992, when the number of women in the House rose from 29 to 47 and leapt from 2 to 7 in the Senate.
        Nearly half of this year's record number of women House candidates were challengers to incumbents, the most difficult avenue to reach Congress. Only 3 of 52 female challengers managed to win election to the House.... The number of Republican women climbed from 12 to 17 in the House and from 2 to the 3 in the Senate. The number of Democratic women dropped from 35 to 30 in the House and remained at 5 in the Senate.
        • From the Capital Eye, newsletter of Center
         for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.

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