Why women are dominating Democratic primaries

June 25, 2018

McClatchy: Why women are dominating Democratic primaries

By Alex Roarty 

Anna Greenberg was Bill de Blasio’s pollster in 2013 when the then-candidate for New York City mayor defeated former frontrunner Christine Quinn — a victory Greenberg says was a case of the liberal de Blasio’s ideology trumping Quinn’s gender.

If the race were re-run today, she says the result would be different.

“That race felt like gender didn’t matter,” said Greenberg, who cited de Blasio’s support among college-educated women as important to victory at the time. “And it’s hard to see that this year. Because gender matters.”

Indeed, gender does matter this year, nowhere more so than in the Democratic Party’s House primaries. Already, Democratic women running for House seats have scored important victories in general election battlegrounds such as Texas, Nebraska and California, where they have bested male rivals even in races where they raised less money and had less institutional party support.

Their success has intrigued Democratic pollsters, who say the data offer no singular explanations for this phenomenon. Instead, leading pollsters describe multiple factors boosting women this year, ranging from sweeping cultural forces to a subtle feeling among liberal-leaning voters that women are more progressive. The wins are also tied to President Donald Trump, they say, but not just because of his personal behavior.

“I’m highly skeptical that there’s one theory or a dynamic that explains this voting trend,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic strategist and former deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It’s a confluence of a number of important factors, most importantly that these women who are winning are great candidates.”

Nearly every pollster interviewed emphasized one point: Women running for office are benefiting just as much from male voters as female voters. It isn’t just female voters (who make up between 55 percent and 60 percent of the primary electorate) who want the party to nominate women.

Here’s a look at the key drivers of female candidates’ victories across the map this year, according to top Democratic pollsters.

Health Care

The Republican push, led by Trump, to partially repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017 made health care the No. 1 policy issue on the minds of Democratic voters, and pollsters say that implicitly helps women running for office.

“The issue range favors female candidates,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster. “If the issues are more taxes and job creation, that can tilt things with voters who, subconsciously, might give males the nod.”

The focus on health care is apparent in most primaries, where candidates have made the topic a regular part of their stump speech or TV and digital ads. And when they aren’t talking about health care, they’re often emphasizing the importance of education — another issue that McCrary said inherently favors women.

#metoo and Trump

A poll taken earlier this year for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that 37 percent of women say the multitude of sexual harassment revelations that began last year make them more likely to vote for female candidates, a view shared by 42 percent of unmarried women, 50 percent of millennial women and 40 percent of African-American women.

Many Democratic women and men see a connection between Trump and the #metoo movement, and regard a vote for a woman as a distinct way to send a message about politics and values. More than ten women have accused Trump of sexual harassment, and the president himself once infamously described how he would assault women.

“It’s the complete antithesis of Trump,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the survey for the Barbara Lee Foundation. “It’s the ultimate anti-Trump.”

A June poll from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News found Democrats overwhelmingly thought the country would be better off with more women in office, with nearly 90 percent of them saying so.

Pollsters say their primary voters are angered not just Trump, but the Republican voters who continue to support him despite the accusations of harassment and assault.

“You have a huge dynamic in American politics where behavior you and I could never have imagined before is sort of accepted by a huge portion of the electorate,” Canter said. “That is obviously going to affect voting patterns.”


Democratic pollsters say they are actually surprised they don’t see more in their data to indicate why women are having so much success — even in focus groups, it’s not as if participants are bluntly declaring they just want to vote for a woman. Instead, they describe a subtle yet significant effect that doesn’t necessarily appear until late in the primary.

Mike Bocian, a Democratic pollster, said he’s seen polls of primaries where a male and female candidate were tied in the race’s final week.

“In a lot of cases, you’re seeing the women win that race by four points,” Bocian said. “That kind of thing is what we’re seeing.”

All of the pollsters agreed that primary voters aren’t simply seeing a woman on the ballot and deciding to vote for her; instead, gender is serving as a tie-breaker for voters when everything seems equal. And even a small advantage can be crucial in primary elections, where candidates have limited name recognition and little money to communicate to voters (especially those running in expensive media markets).

“It’s incredibly difficult for each candidate to communicate, and gender serves as a shortcut,” Greenberg said. “Voters might think, ‘I don’t know much about the candidate, so I’m going to vote for the woman.’”

‘Just Better’

Other Democratic leaders have a different explanation: The women running are simply good candidates.

“Maybe they’re just better candidates,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILYs List, a group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. “And we’ve argued they’re just better candidates.”

A record number of women are running for office this election cycle, a surge that has yielded Democrats a number of top-tier recruits such as Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania and Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey. Democratic strategists say that EMILYs List’s own heavy involvement in primaries (the group has spent more than $10 million this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics) has been influential, especially as other Democratic groups avoid potential intra-party conflicts.

Women aren’t winning every Democratic primary, and they aren’t coming out on top against every male rival, either. But they are still enjoying a year of successes unlike any other.

“I will tell you what I said after the Texas primaries to one my clients: It’s not a good year to be a boring white guy,” Greenberg said. “That’s my hot take.