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The Success of Women Congressional Candidates—By the Numbers

/ Published April 30, 2012

Women have been serving in Congress for almost a hundred years. Yet if every one of the women who have served in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were alive and serving today, Congress would still be just 52 percent female. It’s statistics like this that motivate Alana Eichner ’12, a Smith government major, whose research sheds new light on reasons for women’s congressional underrepresentation.

Eichner’s government honors thesis examines the candidacies of every woman who ran as a party nominee for the House of Representatives in 2008 and 2010. To tease out what best predicted the candidates’ electoral success, Eichner researched and quantified several key campaign factors—including funding, previous experience, party affiliation, district demographics and incumbency—and statistically analyzed which had the greatest effect on the percentage of total votes won by each candidate.

Her results contribute to the corpus of research on women in politics for two election cycles that most researchers have yet to tackle.

Eichner’s analysis showed that incumbency and party affiliation were the strongest predictors of success for women candidates in House races for the years studied.

“Women get a huge advantage from being incumbents,” says Eichner, a trend that has held in the past for both male and female candidates. However, fewer women are incumbents, and so fewer women enjoy the protective advantage that comes with incumbency. “Over 90 percent of incumbents are re-elected in any given year,” says Eichner, and since only 17 percent of the House and 17 percent of the Senate are women, “that doesn’t leave a lot of room female faces in Congress.”

The initial entry of women into the House and Senate, beginning in 1917 with Rep. Jeanette Rankin, coincides historically with the increase in number of terms served by representatives. “In the early 20th century, most people running for the House of Representatives would stay two or four years and then they’d retire.” Since then, longer terms have become much more common and are increasingly used to amass political clout in the House or Senate. “And so once someone’s been on the job 10 or 12 years, it’s very hard to defeat them. That’s why the male-dominated nature of Congress is so self-perpetuating.”

Predominantly male incumbency is often cited as an obstacle to more gender-balanced representation in Congress, leading some scholars of women’s electoral participation to argue that enacting term limits in Congress would allow for an increased influx of female senators and representatives.

Party affiliation has also been shown to play a part in electoral success for both men and women, and Eichner’s statistical analysis confirms that this still holds for women. But her additional case-study research also confirms a gender-specific nuance between parties. Because female candidates are consistently perceived as being more liberal, even though they may not be, Republican women are likely to have a difficult time making it to general elections in strongly Republican districts when they’re competing against male counterparts in a primary. “Republican women have an interesting conundrum because they’re more likely to win in moderately conservative districts—but of course moderately conservative districts are swing districts, and so they’re much harder [for Republicans] to safely win than very conservative districts,” says Eichner.

Professor Howard Gold, Eichner’s thesis adviser and a researcher in voting behavior and public opinion, stresses the implications this could have for party diversity. “The Republican Party has shifted so far to the right; that probably has a negative impact on women, who are perceived as more moderate,” says Gold. “Ten or 15 years ago that might not have been much of a liability, but in the modern Republican Party, it is.”

Historically, the Democratic Party has consistently elected more women from its ranks than the Republican Party. In the House currently, 24 of the 242 Republicans are women, compared with 49 of the 190 Democrats.

Eichner used a statistical analysis based on a scale that measures how friendly a district is to having women candidates, in a method developed by political science researchers Barbara Palmer and Dennis Simon. The woman-friendliness of a district is based largely on demographic correlates, such as affluence and education.

“I think that districts who have a history of electing women are much more likely to elect women in the future, and the converse of that is true,” says Eichner. “There are many, many congressional districts in the country who have never ever had a female representative—I think the majority of them. So if you’ve never elected a woman, the voters are less likely to do so, they’re less familiar with it,” presenting another potential barrier to women entering the House.

While incumbency, party affiliation and district demographics are all critical to a woman’s success once she’s in the electoral process, Eichner agrees with many other researchers that there’s another big piece that has a tremendous amount to do with women’s underrepresentation in Congress: simply, that not enough women run.

Alana Eichner ’12

“Women need to be told they’re qualified to run,” says Eichner. “Women are much less likely to do the necessary pre-steps to running for office—talking to friends, finding out how to get your name on the ballot—men are much more likely to do that than women are. Women are much more likely to help somebody else, to volunteer for another candidate, but to put themselves forward takes much more convincing.”

Consequently, women are also underrepresented in positions that can lead to public service at the federal level, such as state-level political offices. “If there aren’t women in the pipeline,” stresses Eichner, “there aren’t women who are going to be positioned to run for Congress.” Such experience in office is often a source of party recruitment and, in the electoral process, strongly correlates with a candidate’s ability to raise money in a campaign and influence her total number of votes won. Currently, only 24 percent of statehouse representatives are women.

“I would conclude [that] the biggest two barriers to women’s equal political representation [are] the effects of incumbency and the effects of displayed lack of political ambition among women,” says Eichner.

Unfortunately, research shows that women rate themselves as less qualified to run for office than their equivalently experienced male peers and that such perceptions aren’t limited to potential candidates—they also tend to be shared by voters. “Men who are less experienced win at comparable rates to women who are much more experienced than men,” says Eichner. In one of the case studies supplementing her statistical analysis, Eichner delineates the 2010 defeat of incumbent House Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, whose political experience included one term in the U.S. House and multiple terms in the Arizona Statehouse. She lost her seat to Republican Paul Gosar, a dentist with no political experience. “If the gender roles were reversed, would [the election] have happened that way?” asks Eichner.

Eichner maintains that since voters’ ideas of what a leader looks like are based on stereotypically masculine traits, women candidates must constantly fight to demonstrate their competency and at the same time remain likeable. Because men are more likely to be assumed to be competent by voters, they can win with less experience.

Though the main thrust of Eichner’s research is quantitative, she also stresses the importance of qualitative methods, which reveal subtleties in individual women’s candidacies not captured by data analyses. In Eichner’s study of Ann Kirkpatrick, she observes that Kirkpatrick was elected to the House in 2008 after Rep. Rick Renzi resigned in the wake of being indicted on 35 counts of corruption. A woman running for office after a scandal may have an advantage because “women are perceived to be much more truthful and honest and less corrupt as politicians.” Another study fleshes out the influence of incumbency on a woman’s campaign, observing that when Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler became the youngest female representative in Congress, it was after competing against a Democratic candidate for the open seat in Washington’s 3rd District, rather than facing a long-time incumbent.

“Gender is, especially in House races, rarely the explicit narrative in a race,” says Eichner. “When I talked to people [close to] the races, they told me repeatedly, gender was not the story...gender wasn’t a factor.” Though the effect that being a woman candidate has on mounting a successful congressional campaign may not be readily apparent, even to those on the campaign trail, “when you bring out lots of the little pieces,” says Eichner, “it becomes abundantly clear” that gender is indeed a factor.