Measuring 'Women-Friendly' Districts

By Palmer, Barbara; Simon, Dennis | Campaigns & Elections, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview

Measuring 'Women-Friendly' Districts


Palmer, Barbara, Simon, Dennis, Campaigns & Elections


DATA!

A demographic formula to predict where female candidates are most likely to succeed

Demographics have long been used by both political scientists and consultants to predict whether a Democrat or Republican will win a particular district. What we discovered in the course of pouring over decades of congressional election results is that demographics can also predict whether a man or a woman will win in a particular House district. There is indeed a "political geography" to women's success.

There have been incredible social changes since 1940, including dramatic shifts in public attitudes about the role of women. In 1940, only 15 percent of married women worked outside the home; by 1986, this had reached 50 percent. In 1968, women received fewer than 5 percent of all law degrees; by 2004, this had reached 50 percent. But these trends do not apply to Congress. In 2010, 72 women were elected to the House. It was actually a decline from 2008, when 74 women were elected- a historic high.

One of the biggest roadblocks is, of course, incumbency. Since 1956, there have been only two election cycles when the reelection rate for incumbents dropped below 90 percent. Scandals aside, in the immortal words of former Representative Clem Miller (D-Calif.), "few die and none resign." Defeating a House incumbent is a tremendous hurdle for any challenger, and most incumbents are men.

However, once female lawmakers attain office, they actually have a slightly better track record than male incumbents. Since 1956, just over 95 percent of female House incumbents have won reelection, compared to 94.9 percent of their male colleagues. Female incumbents also win with larger margins, averaging 67 percent of the two-party vote compared to their male counterparts with 64 percent. This suggests that the playing field is level and that the problem is simply that fewer women are interested in running in the first place.

While the data suggests female incumbents fare slightly better in the context of a general election, they actually have to work harder to hang on to their seats. That's because they are more likely to face primary challenges than their male counterparts. When it comes to the ultimate incumbency advantage, running uncontested in the primary and the general election, women are half as likely to get this free pass. Incumbency is not gender neutral.

Part of this increased competition actually comes from other women. When a female incumbent seeks reelection, women are nearly twice as likely to run in the opposition party primary than when a male incumbent seeks reelection. Female incumbents are also more likely to be challenged by other women in their own primaries. In other words, women tend to run against each other. The result is that there is virtually no net gain in the number of women in Congress in a given election cycle. With the exception of 1992, the average net increase in the House over the past 25 elections has been less than two women. If these trends continue, the House will be half female by 2156.

All of this suggests that women tend to cluster in certain districts. Twentyseven of the 72 women elected in 2010 came from just two states- California and New York.

We used 12 demographic factors to explore where women are most likely to be successful. For each election since 1956, this analysis allowed us to rank all 435 House districts on what is a novel measure of "women-friendliness." To varying degrees, the differences in the district demographics that elect men and women hold regardless of the party and race of the candidate. And many of these demographics are counterintuitive.

For example, successful female House candidates come from the wealthiest districts in the country. This is true for women of both parties. In California's 14th District, represented by Anna Eshoo (D), the median income of residents is 190 percent of the national average, and Illinois' 13th District, represented by Judy Biggert (R), has a median income 175 percent of the national average. …

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