This year, a record number of women are running for office. What is motivating them to run? And what, if anything, is holding them back? In order to lift the veil on this historic wave of women, Bustle Trends Group, together with VoteRunLead, a non-partisan, national organization that trains women to run for office, conducted a poll of 1,000 women, ages 18 to 49, with an oversampling of millennial women. The poll, conducted and completed on Feb. 13, 2018, explored the impact of the 2016 election on women’s political engagement, including their motivation and the obstacles they think are preventing them from running for office. The results of the poll provide a fascinating look at the effect the 2016 elections had on American women, as well as their attitudes about politics in 2018 and beyond.
One of the insights that the poll revealed was that women of color and Trump supporters are the most likely to say that the results of the election inspired them to become more politically engaged or run for office themselves, but the poll also found women of color are more likely than white women to see barriers early on the process. Of the women who do intend to run for office, the greatest motivator was seeing that someone without traditional political experience could run and win. When asked which qualities they value in a candidate, women listed honesty more often than track record, shared values, or experience.
Turning to the issues, the poll (conducted one day before the Parkland shooting) found that women identified health care as their single biggest issue, followed by education and the economy. The poll also found a partisan divide on the prioritization of “women’s issues.”
All of these findings are set against a deep partisan divide in women’s assessment of Trump’s first year in office. Overall, 37 percent of women gave the president’s first year an F rating, with partisanship revealing a huge divide: 60 percent of Democratic women gave the president an F, while 37 percent of Republican women gave the president an A rating.
Women Of Color Were More Inspired Than White Women To Run For Office (Or Become More Politically Engaged) After 2016
In the 2016 general election, a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump, while a majority of women of color voted for Hillary Clinton. More than a year later, when asked “Did the outcome of the 2016 presidential election increase your likelihood of running for office or being politically engaged?” women of color were 7 percent more likely than white women to say that the results of the election increased the likelihood of their running or becoming more politically engaged: Some 31 percent of women of color said the result of Nov. 8, 2016, increased the likelihood of their running for office or becoming more involved, compared to 24 percent of white women.
“It’s been a year, and minorities are like, ‘This shit is for real.’”
Dr. Victoria De Francesco Soto, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, argues that part of the activation of women of color may stem from the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policy since the election. “It’s been a year, and minorities are like, ‘This shit is for real,’” De Francesco Soto says.
“People of color are being so overtly and clearly attacked,” says Jessica Byrd, founder and principal of Three Point Strategies, a consulting firm focused on electoral politics and social justice. “It’s not just inspiration on civic engagement; it’s a survival mechanism.”
“The narrative that the 2016 election woke women up to injustice or inequality does not seem to apply as well to women of color as it does to white women.”
“The narrative that the 2016 election woke women up to injustice or inequality does not seem to apply as well to women of color as it does to white women,” Dr. Kelly Dittmar says, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden and a scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics. “Women of color were well aware of the threats and barriers to their progress and equality before Donald Trump was elected, but this data show that his election still mobilized at least some of them to engage even more or in a different way, and at a slightly higher rate than among the white women in the sample.”
Women Of Color — Even When They’re Activated — Know Running For Political Office Is Different For Them
Although women of color are interested in the prospect of running for office, their rationales for not running are different. Twenty-four percent of women of color say that the reason they are less likely to run for office is that they “don’t know where to start,” compared to 16 percent of white women who said the same. It is a split that Dittmar argues highlights the need for woman of color-focused candidate recruitment and support.
“One of the reasons our government looks the way it does and feels the way it does is a product of systemic barriers to entry.”
“One of the reasons our government looks the way it does and feels the way it does is a product of systemic barriers to entry,” Byrd says. “The ambition theory that has for so long dominated gender spaces is problematic and in some cases dangerous. It puts the onus on the individual to have the answers. That can be racist and classist, because it ignores all of these system that stop you from getting the information that you need to participate.”
Trump Voters Are More Motivated By The 2016 Election Than Democrats Or Republicans
Republican women were slightly more likely than Democratic women to say that the outcome of the 2016 election had increased the likelihood of their becoming more politically engaged or running for office: 35 percent of Republican women, compared to 32 percent of Democratic women said it had increased that likelihood.
The most activated vote segment, according to the poll, consisted of women who voted for Trump; 40 percent of these women also said the outcome of the election increased the likelihood of their becoming more politically involved. Twenty-five percent of Trump voters said they are considering running for office now or at some point in the future, compared to 19 percent of Democratic women and 18 percent of Republican women.
“If you were mobilized for Donald Trump, and then he succeeded, it keeps you engaged in the process.”
Experts point out that because the Trump campaign targeted low propensity voters, those who don’t usually participate in Republican primaries, the starting point of political engagement for these voters could be different than those who strongly identify with one of the two major political parties. They suggested that data also indicates that Trump’s victory likely had a galvanizing effect on his supporters.
“If you were mobilized for Donald Trump, and then he succeeded, it keeps you engaged in the process,” Dittmar says.
“For millennial women who support Trump, the conventional wisdom suggests that their support of Trump is out of step with where their generation is,” says Kristen Soltis-Anderson, a Republican pollster and author of The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up). “If you align with Trump, you may feel you can’t talk about your views on campus or with your friends. If you have felt that these are not the majority views of women of your generation, and your candidate then wins the White House, it might be validating.”
2016 Taught Women That They Don’t Need Experience To Get On The Ballot
Of the sample of women polled who said they plan to run for office now or in the future (15 percent), some 29 percent of those women said seeing that “someone without political experience could run for office and win” best described why they were thinking about becoming candidates. The next closest motivator was inspiration from the Women’s March (19 percent).
“Having examples of people who run for office that don’t have a ton of the traditional experience is so important for women.”
“Having examples of people who run for office that don’t have a ton of the traditional experience is so important for women,” Anderson affirms. “Does the current increase in women running have the potential to become a self-sustaining cycle? ... I think it could.”
Byrd agrees that this is a potentially powerful motivator. “People who aren’t rich, who don’t have law degrees, who don’t have a Rolodex of elected officials can and should govern their own communities,” Byrd tells Bustle.
Women Want Honest Politicians — More Than A Consistent Track Record, Shared Values, Or Experience
When asked which three traits were most important for an ideal political candidate, 66 percent of women chose “honesty,” 42 percent chose “consistent track record,” 23 percent chose “shared values,” and 19 percent chose “years of political experience.”
“If you would have asked that question before the last election, I don’t know that you would have gotten that as a top answer,” Dittmar tells Bustle. “It comes from the attention we’ve been paying to honesty and dishonesty with Trump, Clinton, and now the #MeToo movement. Our politics feel tinged with scandal.”
De Francesco Soto also adds that honesty is also open to interpretation. “If you’re a Democrat or a mainstream Republican, you say honesty in response to what you perceive as this administration’s dishonesty,” says De Franccesco Soto. “If you are a Trump voter, you think, ‘My president is embodying it. He talks straight to me on Twitter.’”
“For women running, authenticity is less straightforward.”
The emphasis on honesty could be good news for women candidates. “The public is more likely to identify honesty and ethics with women than they are with men,” Dittmar says. “That has always been a place where women candidates can try to tout their advantage.” But, Dittmar warns, it can also be a double-edged sword: Because honesty is expected of women, they are also penalized when they defy that expectation, or are painted as dishonest.
Experts agree that “honesty” is also a proxy for authenticity. Anderson points to Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul as two elected officials who have resonated with millennial voters. “You don’t doubt that when either of them open their mouth and say something that it’s what they believe,” Anderson says.
"For women running, authenticity is less straightforward,” Dittmar writes. “It is assumed that women, as political outsiders, have to 'act' the part of candidate and officeholder in order to meet both the masculine credentials for the job and the feminine credentials of being a 'real' woman.”
Health Care, Health Care, Health Care
Asked which three issues they are most passionate about, 67 percent of women chose health care, 48 percent chose education, and 43 percent chose the economy.
“One of the truisms of public policy is that once you give it, it’s really hard to take it away,” De Francesco Soto tells Bustle. “We’ve had a few years of the Affordable Care Act. You may not like Obama, but you like having health care.”
While Anderson says that health care is typically an issue she sees poll higher among progressive women, economic shifts could explain health care’s prioritization even among Republican women. “As the economy has gotten a little better, concern about the economy has ebbed a little, while concern about cost of living has gone up,” Anderson explains.
“Health care is a place where it’s not only about them, but their parents and their families.”
Republican consultant Joanna Burgos echoes Anderson’s analysis about health care’s prioritization being connected to cost. “If you’ve just received a large bill from your doctor, the cost of health care is top of mind.”
“Young people are feeling a lot of insecurity and anxiety,” says Alexandra Acker Lyons, a progressive political consultant with expertise in the youth vote. “Health care is a place where it’s not only about them, but their parents and their families. So many millennials live in multi-generational households.”
Which Party, And Which Women, Are The Most Passionate About “Women’s Issues”?
Prioritization of “women’s issues” is where women expressed one of the greatest partisan divides. Sixty-three percent of Democratic women said the government is not adequately prioritizing women’s issues, while only 35 percent of Republicans women agreed. Much of that divide comes down to an ideological divide over identity politics and what qualifies as a “women’s issue.”
“Republican women will ask, ‘Isn’t security an issue that affects women? Isn’t immigration an issue that affects women? Isn’t wage growth?’”
“It reflects, as many expect, that when we talk about women’s rights generally, there is a presumption that we’re talking about progressive issues,” Dittmar tells Bustle.
“Republican women will ask, ‘Isn’t security an issue that affects women?’” Anderson says. “‘Isn’t immigration an issue that affects women? Isn’t wage growth?’”
As this poll reveals, the 2016 election had an undeniable impact on women, one that is more nuanced than the well-documented spike in women running for office. This poll raises additional questions about what is motivating women to become more politically engaged, the type of candidate that can best succeed in today’s political climate, and how women’s political ambition can be best cultivated and supported.
Note: The margin of error for this poll is +/- 3 percent.