Where Women Win: Closing the Gap in Congress

After Political Parity released its groundbreaking “Twin States” research in 2013, revealing the phenomenon that states with one woman in a top office are more likely to elect other high-level women, we wondered if this was true at the congressional level as well.

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Key Findings

1) Women Are Still Relatively Rare as Congressional Candidates

  1. Across the time period studied, women were only 13% of all candidates, and 70% of congressional elections studied included no female candidates, either in the primary or general election.  Only about 2% of districts had more than 1 woman run in the primary.
  2. Incumbency continues to limit women’s entry and advancement into Congressional races and positions; incumbents win their races at a rate of about 95%, and about 90% of all incumbents in our dataset are men.  Women are far more likely to run and to win if they are running for an open seat rather than against an incumbent.
See the map


2) The Distribution of Women as Candidates and Election Winners Across Congressional Districts is Not Random

  1. Not random by party: Women are increasingly likely to run (and win) as Democrats rather than Republicans. Across all elections over time, 61% of women running for Congress have been Democrats. In 2012, the proportion increased to 63% for all primary candidates and 70% for general election candidates.  Female candidates are also more likely to win if they are Democrats rather than Republicans, especially lately; since 2008, Democratic women win their primaries 65% of the time, while Republican women win their primaries 53% of the time.  In the general elections since 2008, Democratic women win 52% of their races while Republican women win 44% of theirs.
  2. Not random by geography/demography: Women are more likely to run and win in districts with certain features, including: including a large city (100,000+ residents) and a more urbanized population, greater racial diversity within the district, higher median incomes, compact rather than spread-out districts based on square mileage, and a lower percent of unemployed and seniors.
  3. Not random by political factors: Women are far more likely to run and win if the seat is an open seat, rather than held by an incumbent.  Also, women (both Democrat and Republican) are more likely to run in primaries in Democratic-leaning districts.  Democratic women are also more likely to win in these districts but Republican women are not.
  4. Not random by distribution and history of other women leaders: Women are far more likely to run for Congress in districts nestled within states that have a higher percentage of women in the state legislature.  Women are also more likely to run in a district if a woman has won the seat previously.
See the map


3) Women of Color Are More Likely Than White Women to Win General Elections, Once Nominated in Primaries (data for 2012 only)

  1. Women of color are very likely to run in majority-minority districts, and these districts are more likely to elect women than white-majority districts
  2. Once nominated in the primaries, women of color win their general elections at a rate of 77%, compared with 42% for white women (2012 only)

4) Generally When Women Leave Congressional Seats, They Are Not Succeeded by Other Women

  1. Across the whole time period studied, of the 70 female representatives who left office, only 15 passed their seat on to another woman (21%). This pattern is not getting better in recent elections: in 2010, 3 women left Congress and only 1 was replaced by another woman. In 2012, 11 women left or lost seats; only 2 were replaced by women.

5) Many Republican Women Are Caught in a King of Electoral Catch-22
(fits with our report from 2015 on Republican women)

  1. Republican women are more likely to run in primaries in liberal-leaning districts, and are more likely to win primaries in those districts, but then are not very likely to win the general elections in those districts.

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