The most comprehensive study ever done of women’s chances of winning elections delivered a verdict that surprised even its authors: Women candidates have the same chance of victory as men, no better and no worse.
The survey, released Thursday by the National Women’s Political Caucus, appeared to shoot down a prevailing political belief: That women, because of biases on the part of voters and women’s general status as outsiders to the political Establishment, have a harder time winning elections than men.
In fact, the major variable that determined whether female candidates won general elections was simple incumbency, the survey found. Men dominate state legislatures, Congress and the statehouses because they always have.
“Winning has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with incumbency,” said Jody Newman, coordinator of the survey of 50,563 candidates who have run for public office since 1972.
Another surprise was the survey’s finding that 1992’s political “Year of the Woman” in some ways wasn’t: More women won than ever before because more of them ran for open seats, but the women who did run had no better chance of winning than male candidates.
“It was a good year for women,” said Newman, executive director of the women’s caucus. “But it’s not true that women had an advantage.”
The study, nine months in the making, covered every general election candidate for state legislatures since 1986, and every general election candidate for Congress, the U.S. Senate and governor since 1972.
It was undertaken in part to ascertain whether women candidates lost more often than men. That has been a common perception; two-thirds of those polled in a July caucus survey said they believed that women had a tougher time at the ballot box.
To the contrary, the study found that the reason that few women make it into political office is that few try. Since 1972, it found, only 7% of the candidates for the House and Senate and 6% of gubernatorial candidates have been women. Since 1986, 20% of state legislative candidates have been women.
National Women’s Political Caucus officials said they hope that the results will help spur more women to seek office.
“It’s very possible that the perception itself that women have a tougher time may be keeping more women from running for office,” Newman said.
She said the findings should not be interpreted as saying that voters see male and female candidates in the same way or that gender plays no role in elections. It simply concludes, she said, that on average a woman’s chance of success is the same as a man’s.
“Women are candidates and women are people, they are conservative and liberal, they run good campaigns and bad campaigns, the same as men,” she said.
For purposes of the study, the women’s caucus chose 1972 as the beginning sample for the House, Senate and governors’ races because it was the year that several women’s groups began pressing to increase the number of women in office.
State legislative races were considered from 1986 because that was the first year that Rutgers University’s Center for the American Woman and Politics began to computerize records of female legislative candidates. The study was based on the center’s computer records.
The findings centered on general election nominees, which Newman acknowledged raised the question of whether the study took into account only the strongest of women candidates. But she said that three smaller studies of primary voting in recent years indicated that women and men had the same chances in primaries as well.
The study broke down candidacies of men and women into groups of incumbents, challengers and those vying for an open seat--one in which the incumbent had retired or been defeated in the primary.
Overall, when gender was not taken into account, the benefits of incumbency were apparent. In House elections, incumbents won 16 times more often than challengers; in Assembly races, incumbents won 10 times more often than challengers, and in state Senate races, they won more than eight times as often. Incumbent U.S. senators and governors were at least three times more likely to win than their challengers.
Because men have traditionally held those offices and women have frequently been the challengers, it has appeared that men were more successful campaigners than women.
But when the survey broke down male and female candidates into the three categories of office seekers, it became clear that that was not the case.
In state Assembly races, incumbent women won 95% of the time, while incumbent men won 94% of the races. Women challengers won 10% of the time and men challengers won 9% of the time. Women and men running for open seats each won little more than half the time.
In state Senate races, incumbent women won 91% and incumbent men 92% of the time. Women running for open seats won 58% of the races; men won 55%. Female challengers won 16% of the time; men 11%.
In House races, the statistics for men and women were similarly close. Men and women incumbents both won more than 95% of the time, candidates for open seats won about half the time and challengers won from 4% to 6% of the time.
For U.S. Senate races, half of the women and men running for open seats won their races; in the governors’ races, three-fourths of men and women incumbents won and about one out of five challengers won.
The study found that incumbent women U.S. senators, female Senate challengers and women running for open gubernatorial seats did worse than men, but said that only 59 women fell into those categories over the course of 22 years. It is “not enough to make meaningful generalizations or comparisons,” the study said.
Few differences were found when the statistics were broken down by state. In California, 97% of male legislative incumbents and 96% of women were reelected, while in races for open seats, 49% of the male candidates and 54% of the women were elected. Challengers fared equally bleakly, with 3% of men and 5% of women defeating incumbents.
According to the study, one common belief is true: In general elections, women candidates were more often Democratic than Republican. And when they succeed, they face challengers more often than men, due in part to the perception that they are more vulnerable.
Running for Office
Here is a look at the success rates of state Senate and Assembly candidates in California from 1986-92:
WINNING CANDIDATES WINNERS PERCENTAGE Incumbents 275 268 97% Open seats 103 50 49% Challengers 233 6 3%
WINNING CANDIDATES WINNERS PERCENTAGE Incumbents 51 49 96% Open seats 41 22 54% Challengers 58 3 5%
WINNING CANDIDATES WINNERS PERCENTAGE Incumbents 326 317 97% Open seats 144 72 50% Challengers 291 9 3%
Source: National Women’s Political Caucus