Episode 2: Why Republican Women Don’t Run for Office and Why It Matters for the Gender Gap in Voting
Democratic women make up three times the share of their congressional caucus than Republican women. Matt Grossmann talks to Danielle Thomsen about her new research on how the donor networks in each party help produce this divide. He also talks to Heather Ondercin about her new research showing that the gap among officeholders may be producing the big gender gap among voters, with women increasingly seeing the Democrats as their party and men exiting the party for the same reason.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, why Republican women don’t run for office and why it matters for the gender gap in voting. From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Women have been gaining representation in Congress but still only represent one in five House and Senate members. But there’s a big difference by party. The share of women in the Democratic Caucus is more than three times the share of women in the Republican Caucus. Why?
A new study, “Which Women Can Run,” published in Political Research Quarterly, concludes that female Democratic candidates gain the support of female donors, while Republican women do not. I talked to one of the authors, Danielle Thomson of Syracuse University about how they track donor networks and how they reflect each party’s priorities. But what are the consequences?
Another new study finds that the big gender gap in office holders may help explain the growing gender gap among Democrats and Republicans in the public. Today, I’ll also talk to Heather Anderson of the College of Wooster about a new study she co-authored in Political Research Quarterly called “Who Is Responsible for the Gender Gap?” It argues that because woman have gained elected offices, women voters are moving toward the Democrats while men are moving toward the Republicans.
In the 2016 presidential election, a Republican man faced a Democratic woman with gender and identity and issues taking on outsized importance. Now a new surge of Democratic women is running for office. EMILY’s List says they’ve received interest from 10,000 potential female candidates since Trump’s election.
How did we end up with such a large gender gap at the elite and mass levels? Political scientists find that when women run for office, they win at similar rates as men. So they’ve traditionally explained the lack of women office holders as a product of fewer candidates, with women having less political ambition and getting less encouragement to run. But the big gap between the parties has provoked new research on just what factors enable women to run.
Danielle Thomsen told me the traditional research found fundraising to have a limited impact.
Thomsen: So a lot of the political science research on gender differences in fundraising suggest that no, there really aren’t that many differences, the morally situated women raised as much money as similarly situated men, and so that was kind of the conventional wisdom in the literature. But we think that campaign finance and fundraising still affects the type of men and women who make a run.
Grossmann: The new study looked at men and women donors, tracking which candidates they gave to within each party.
Thomsen: So then we decided to look at these individual donor networks and really the gender makeup. We know that men make up a significantly larger part of the donor pool than … female donors. But we thought maybe the donor pools of Democratic and Republican women do differ.
Grossmann: They found that only Democratic women donors support female candidates.
Thomsen: In the Democratic party you see women donors really making it a priority to help out women candidates from a fund … like a specifically fundraising angle, and they’re giving disproportionately to the Democratic women who are running.
Grossmann: That leaves Democratic women better positioned to run compared to Republican women.
Thomsen: The Republican women who run for office are going to be competing for the same pool of resources as Republican men, whereas the Democratic women who are running for office seem to have a separate pool of financial resources than Democratic men who run.
Grossmann: The most visible factor is the Democratic organization specifically designed to support women candidates, EMILY’s List, and the lack of a Republican equivalent.
Thomsen: They don’t have an EMILY’s List. And when you don’t have an EMILY’s List, and you don’t have an obvious and distinct donor base, it’s really difficult to even begin to take the steps to launch a political candidacy.
Grossmann: The research challenges the traditional view that men and women candidates can both gather the resources to run.
Thomsen: Women were going to run for office because we look at only candidates. But what kinds of resources would they expect to get and have access to? And this is where I think it does more to challenge the conventional list, that is to say not all women are going to face the same electoral environment.
Grossmann: But Thomsen acknowledges that fundraising matters alongside many other factors.
Thomsen: I do not think there is a serious derth of conservative Republican women who are all situated to run, particularly for higher office, but I think fundraising is the forefront of how candidates are making their decisions.
Grossmann: And it is proportioned interest in gender on the Democratic side, maybe a product of the broader party differences, not just on fundraising.
Thomsen: There is a narrative in the party around helping to elect more women, and Republicans are just unitedly drawn on your research and then united by a different identity. And that identity is more of the conservative ideological identity.
Grossmann: Her research also finds that Democratic men tend to support male candidates.
Thomsen: There is a clear relationship between the amount of money that Democratic men are giving money by gender to Democratic male candidates as well.
Grossmann: Thomsen was skeptical but the finding for men was also consistent.
Thomsen: The finding is … it’s consistent and it is evident. So there is a relationship between Democratic male donors giving to male candidates.
Grossmann: Could this help explain the rising gender gap in voting? I spoke to Heather Ondercin, author of a new study showing this partisan gap in office holders matters for the partisanship of both men and women.
Ondercin: I think that there are two really important findings from this study. One is, that the gender gap and partisanship is not just about men or it’s not just about women. But rather, it’s function of changes in both men’s and women’s partisan attachments. The second thing that, I think, also matters … also in important, is that representation matters beyond policy.
Grossmann: Most of the changes she examined were away from the parties, rather than toward them.
Ondercin: Looking at both Democratic, Republican, and Independent identifiers, and sort of seen how out of those categories we see the different ships. And I think having independence in there is really important because we know that with changes in partisanship, it was very unlikely people might be flipping parties, but might be more moving into that independent category.
Grossmann: Ondercin used analyses of trends over time to find the changes that were due to true shifts in response to political events.
Ondercin: We are always worried about the fact that lots of things change over time. And so, one of the important things that I did in this project was to make sure to remove out the things that could be causing the correlations that aren’t really a substance of nature, but just…to make sure that the relationships that I was looking at were not gonna be spurious in nature.
Grossmann: She found that the biggest factor was women’s representation in each party in Congress. But she sees it as a broader reflection of the parties.
Ondercin: So the variable looks at the proportion of women in the Democratic Party Congressional Delegation to the proportion of women in the Republican Party’s Congressional Delegation. We know that individuals in the electorate sometimes don’t even know who their specific member of Congress is. But I do think that it is an indicator of larger changes not only in the Congressional delegations of the parties, but also larger trends that we see going over time in terms of candidates…The policy representations of the parties, and so what I really see is groups from the electorate are using this as a cue, or an indicator, of the stances of the party.
Grossmann: Ondercin studied aggregate trends. The numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the men’s and women’s electorate as a whole. But particular subsets in men and women, such as white working class men and professional unmarried women, may be more likely to move parties.
Ondercin: Men and women are very heterogenous groups, and so we would never expect that all men or all women to be responding in the same way to the exact same signal. One of the things that we do know is that race, ethnicity, class, play an important role in shaping partisan attachments. And so we expect that these social identities would also intersect with gender social identities to shape partisanship.
Grossmann: But even though women have not become the majority of Democratic elected officials, men are still reacting by abandoning the party as women gain share.
Ondercin: But I do think it does raise an entrusting implication for the Democratic party. That as they have become aligned, at least symbolically, with women and minorities, it has driven men away from the Democratic party at a much faster rate than they’re able to attract party identifiers. So at least in this short term, it is definitely hurting the Democratic Party’s electoral chances.
Grossmann: And Ondercin sees a broader lesson about gender identity for men.
Ondercin: Gender is not just about women, but that is also about men. And so when we think about targeting voters, or candidates, based on gender, we need to be considering both.
Grossmann: Democratic elected officials are also becoming racially diverse, and the changes in the party reputations may be broader, encompassing race and region as well as gender.
Ondercin: I think that race is another important cue that individuals use when forming their party identification. And my results indicate that in looking at the fact that those men and women are also responding to changes in the parties as a result of Southern realignment; where you have the Democratic Party becoming more aligned with the policies, and being seen as more representative, of racial minorities in the United States. I know there’s greater diversity of representation of interest within the Democratic Party, and identities within the Democratic Party, people use that as a signal in terms of staying.
Grossmann: Ondercin says 2016 is only likely to reinforce these processes.
Ondercin: This election provided very clear signals, based upon both race and gender, in terms of where the parties stand in symbolic representation, but also in its representation of those different identities.
Grossmann: But she sees some potential for change.
Ondercin: In the current time period, it is self-reinforcing. However, I do think that we know that the parties can play a role, either the Democrats or the Republicans, in fundamentally shaping the candidates that they recruit for office. Now, obviously, getting the donors and party elite to feel that there’s an incentive of recruiting a diverse set of candidates is tricky.
Grossmann: Thomsen also sees 2016 bringing change. There are a lot of new Democratic female candidates motivated by Trump, but it will take awhile for them to impact the party.
Thomsen: There’s a surge in the number of Democratic women who have filed, changes are really slow at the federal level. And many of the Democratic women who are running will likely lose, because of the people who they are running against. A lot of Democratic women challengers will likely lose. I usually tell others that it will make a difference with the state and local level.
Grossmann: Can party leaders reverse these trends? Ondercin says political professionals can learn from the history of how the parties used to field women candidates at equal rates, but then changed.
Ondercin: In earlier time period, there was much better representation … equally between the parties of women. They weren’t well represented in either party. But you actually had sometimes higher numbers of Republican women being elected than Democratic women during the earliest time periods of my study. Then in the mid 1970’s there were some fundamental changes within the Republican Party.
Grossmann: And they need to recognize that party symbolism matters.
Ondercin: The representation of identity matters and has implications beyond policy. And so the symbolic images of the parties have real, important consequences.
Grossmann: But Thomsen sees some chance for Republicans to build an equivalent infrastructure to match the Democrats.
Thomsen: So if there were a Republican EMILY’s list, then you might see some differences. One of this is, I think, this is all open for … to change and if Republicans somehow decided that they cared about electing women for whatever reason, and decided to throw their money behind that cause, then ideally, we would see more Republican women running.
Grossmann: Thomsen said Republican leaders could increase female elected officials through geographic targeting.
Thomsen: I don’t think you’d have to have quotas, I don’t think they’d have to take any of these other dramatic steps, but I do think they need to targe their efforts to where Republican women are most likely to succeed. And that would be open seats that are fairly safe, Republican seats. If the party was expressly committed to the election of a Republican woman, in an open seat that was a fairly safe seat for the party, it wouldn’t be all that hard to elect more women to … more Republican women … to office.
Grossmann: There’s a lot that remains to be learned. For Thomsen, the big question is looking for at why the pool of potential candidates is male dominated.
Thomsen: And women are dramatically less likely to run for office than men in these pools. And that’s where candidates come from, that’s why we use these pools, so we can actually better understand the legislators who are elected and the candidates who do run. And women are dramatically less likely to run, in all of the polls I’ve looked at, women are either slightly less likely to run, as likely to run or even more likely to run than men in case of the Senate pool. But the real concern that I have, and I hope people talk about it more, is that the number of women in the pool … it’s so male dominated … The number of women in the pool are so few and the number of conservative Republican women who would be the most likely to run is just so low.
Grossmann: And why men also dominate the pool of donors.
Thomsen: Male donors contribute such a large part of all donors. I think this is troubling for all of us. And for the representation and the country and … I do think that since fundraising is such an essential part of launching a candidacy and being a candidate and even a legislator, the real dominance of male donors in the donor pool was surprising to me.
Grossmann: For Ondercin, the biggest remaining question is whether representation matters only for identity, or is also seen as cues for policy.
Ondercin: The other thing that I think also is important is trying to better understand how individuals are using these cues of representation to form their partisan attachments. So, is it just about symbolism? Or are they interpreting specific policies from the diverse representation? Or lack of diversity in representation?
Grossmann: I hope you enjoyed the new podcast. Thanks to Heather Ondercin and Danielle Thomsen for joining me. Political Research Digest will be available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington. I’m Matt Grossman, a Michigan State University professor who will be your guide to new and relevant research on American politics and policy. Join us next time to find out why conservatives are reluctant to accept scientific consensus on climate change.