Democratic Primaries

The Drive to Elect Women Is Defining 2018's Democratic Primaries

Most analysis has framed this year's multitude of Democratic primaries as struggles for the soul of the party between moderate, "handpicked DC" candidates and left-wing "insurgents" in the Bernie Sanders mold. On May 15, former Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford (NE-02) was upset by pro-single-payer non-profit executive Kara Eastman. This week, DCCC-hyped Lexington Mayor Jim Gray lost the KY-06 primary to former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath.

But there may be something much simpler and more powerful than ideology at work here: Democratic primary voters' intense desire to nominate women in 2018.

If House Democrats are ultimately successful in November, 2018 might be remembered as the "Year of the Angry College-Educated Female" — a reversal of the 1994 GOP revolution's "Year of the Angry White Male." The April NBC/WSJ poll found that just 27 percent of college-educated women approved of President Trump, while a massive 72 percent disapproved (compared to 48 approval/47 disapproval among non-college men).

A confluence of factors has led to this Trump-driven political moment: last year's Women's March, the societal reckoning in the wake of "Me Too," and the enormous power of EMILY's List to shape races by aiding female Democratic candidates' fundraising efforts. Political scientists could debate just how significant a role each of these has played in this year's explosion of female candidates. The data, however, is crystal clear.

As of this week, 149 of 435 House districts have held primaries, so we're about a third of the way through the season — a good time to gauge emerging trends. So far, Democrats have nominated candidates of all kinds of ideological stripes, from Eastman to pragmatic prosecutor Brendan Kelly (IL-12) to Trump-voting state Sen. Richard Ojeda (WV-03). But the success of female candidates in Democratic primaries is what stands out most.

There have been 65 contests featuring at least one man, one woman and no incumbent on a Democratic primary ballot. Women have defeated men in 45 of those 65 races, and women were the top vote-getters in an additional two Georgia races headed to runoffs. Men defeated women in just 18 cases. In Illinois's 14th CD, for example, former nurse Lauren Underwood defeated six male opponents with a whopping 57 percent of the vote.



In Republican primaries, however, men have fared much better against women. To date, there have been 14 contests featuring at least one man, one woman and no incumbent on a GOP primary ballot. Men have defeated women in 11 of those 14 races. Of the three female GOP primary victors, the only one with a chance of winning in the fall is bison farmer and state Del. Carol Miller (WV-03), who beat six opponents with 24 percent.



This begs the question: is it possible to quantify the "gender bonus" for women running in Democratic primaries this year?

In an attempt to calculate the "bonus," I compared the actual results of the 65 mixed-gender Democratic primaries to hypothetical results had every candidate on the ballot, regardless of gender, received the exact same share of the vote. It turns out that had votes split exactly evenly between all candidates, female candidates would have collectively averaged 39 percent of the vote across the 65 races.

But remarkably, female Democratic candidates have collectively averaged 54 percent of all primary votes across these races. This suggests a built-in advantage of roughly 15 percent for women running in Democratic primaries.

There's been no comparable "gender bonus" on the Republican side (and to begin with, there have been far fewer female GOP candidates than Democrats). Had every candidate on the ballot in the 14 mixed-gender GOP primaries received the exact same share of the vote, women would have collectively averaged 28 percent of the vote. In reality, women have collectively averaged 30 percent of the vote — a negligible difference.

There's evidence that the two parties' bases' views on making Congress look more reflective of the people it represents have diverged in the past two decades.

In 2000, Gallup found that 70 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans agreed that "the country would be governed better if there were more women in political office." In December 2017, a CNN/SSRS poll asked voters, "Do you think this country would be governed better or worse if more women were in political office?" The gap had doubled: 83 percent of Democrats said "better," but just 36 percent of Republicans did so.

Interestingly, Independent respondents to the CNN/SSRS poll were much closer to Democrats' view: 63 percent of them said "better," as did 68 percent of self-identified moderates. This suggests Democrats' primary embrace of women could pay November dividends.

Regardless of whether or not Democrats win back the House, the gender gap between the two parties' caucuses is almost certain to widen next January. Of the 22 Republican women in the House, six are not seeking reelection and another six are vulnerable in the fall (rated Lean Republican or Toss Up). Meanwhile, the 62 female Democrats in the House could expand their ranks to well over a third of the Democratic caucus.

The irony, of course, is that in a year when Democratic women are poised for historic gains, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could end up lacking the votes to become Speaker again, even if her party prevails. And at the moment, a potential female successor isn't obvious.

Image: AP Photo/LM Otero