What We Learned in 2018—and What it Means for 2020

Early in the 2018 campaign, Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), and I issued a note of caution about the gender progress we would see as a result of the midterm elections. Our motto was “under-promise and over-deliver,” noting that gender parity for women in American politics was not going to be achieved in any single election year.

While many did not heed our caution—narratives of the “surge” and the “women’s wave” abounded—2018 proved us right. Gender disparities and gendered barriers in American politics were not upended in a single cycle. Nevertheless, the 2018 election delivered key points of progress that will shape the terrain that candidates are navigating in 2020 and beyond, and it left those of us committed to more equitable political institutions with a reminder that we have unfinished business left to address in 2020 and beyond as well.

This is the focus of CAWP’s new report, Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond, which draws from our unmatched data and a review of the latest research on gender, candidacy and representation to outline what happened with women candidates in 2018 while acting as a guide for gender and intersectional dynamics to watch for in election 2020. A key section of the report outlines both the destruction and durability of gendered and intersectional barriers to women’s political advancement, reminding us that gender equality is a work in progress—not a marker of success in any single “year of the woman.” 

Just as the story of gender in election 2018 is much more complex than simply celebrating a “surge” in women running and winning, so too is our evaluation of gender and intersectional dynamics in 2018 and beyond. That’s why we’ve compiled the following major take-aways to consider in reflecting backward and looking forward. 

(Elvert Barnes / Creative Commons)

Women candidates in election 2018 disrupted the (white and male) status quo in American politics—and challenged assumptions of how, where and which women can achieve electoral success… 

There is no doubt that women made history in the 2018 election, running for and winning elected office in record numbers. Non-incumbent women won at higher rates than men across most levels of office and were responsible for the majority of congressional, gubernatorial and statewide elected executive offices that flipped from red to blue. Women of color made history at various levels of office and—perhaps most notably for the future—challenged biased perceptions that they can’t win over majority-white electorates. More than one-third of women of color elected to the U.S. House for the first time in 2018 won in majority-White districts. 

But success went beyond the numbers for women candidates in 2018. Many women challenged gender and intersectional biases while campaigning, embraced gender as an electoral asset instead of a hurdle to overcome and cleared hurdles that have historically deterred or derailed women candidates’ emergence or success. 

But the 2018 election did not upend durable gender and intersectional disparities in electoral politics and officeholding. 

Too often, the gender story of 2018 has been simplified to note the success of one group of women: Democrats. While Democratic women made historic gains in 2018, the number of Republican women officeholders declined at every level of office. Moreover, women’s numeric success simply chipped away at centuries-long exclusion and underrepresentation of women, and especially women of color, in American political institutions. Even amidst the “surge,” women were less than 25 percent of all candidates in 2018 and are less than one-third of officeholders from the state legislative level upward in 2019. 

Beyond persistent inequities in the numbers, women continue to face electoral challenges that are distinct from men: party and financial support infrastructures vary by gender and race; stereotypes and sexism continue to shape candidate evaluation; women candidates combat sexualized harassment and threats of violence; and gender biases persist in media coverage of and commentary on U.S. campaigns. The ground is shifting in each of these areas, with positive signs of progress for women, but it is certainly premature to declare mission accomplished. 

Early signs from the 2020 cycle indicate that women will continue to disrupt U.S. electoral politics. 

While 2018 revealed the durability of gendered and intersectional hurdles to women’s political progress, it also provided evidence of women candidates disrupting both formal and informal rules of the game in U.S. campaigns. That disruption is likely to continue in the 2020 election.

From the record number of women running for the presidency—and their unabashed (but also diverse) embrace of identity—to women who are no longer “waiting their turn” to run for office, the gender story of election 2020 will be well worth watching. Importantly, that story also includes the men, especially the white men who, perhaps for the first time, are being asked to address their privilege as a potential liability for their presidential bids instead of assuming that their race and gender identities provide only electoral advantages. 

The 2020 election is replete with narratives to watch, foremost among them the impeachment and potential re-election of Donald Trump. But evaluating the complexities of gender and race across party and levels of office in 2020 will be key to telling the full story of what happens in another historic election year.

With Election Day 2020 looming as close as ever, our report gives you a head start and some tips for what to watch for as the cycle plays out—because the work is not done


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.