Win or Lose, Women Are Seeking Election for the Long Haul

UC Davis Researchers Analyzed 7 Decades of Election Results

Women at rally
An increase in women running for office in recent years has not been a "flash in the pan." UC Davis researchers expect women to continue to run for office, and do so repeatedly whether they win or lose. (Getty Images)

Quick Summary

  • Women’s representation in politics is unlikely to return to pre-2016 levels
  • After losing, women run again at about the same rate as men

Women’s electoral candidacies skyrocketed nationwide in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, which many saw as good news for democracy. But behavioral scholars have long maintained that women are more risk-averse than men, and thus are not as likely to sustain a prolonged political career — involving election losses as well as wins — the way men candidates traditionally have.

Further, naysayers in a variety of media clips voiced that women were “sore losers,” and they predicted that the surge of women entering politics at that time would have little long-term impact.

A new University of California, Davis, study suggests, however, that nationwide data show women are in politics for the long haul.

No ‘flash in the pan’

“Contrary to those narratives, our results show that the surge in women candidates is unlikely to be a ‘flash in the pan’ for women’s political representation,” said Rachel Bernhard, co-author of the study and assistant professor of political science at UC Davis. “Far from being ‘sore losers,’ women who run for office are just as likely to persist as men.”

Head shot of Bernhard

Bernhard said the post-2016 surge has already created an increase in the base number of women candidates — and therefore repeat candidates in the future — such that women’s representation in politics is unlikely to return to pre-2016 levels.

The paper, “Men and women candidates are similarly persistent after losing elections,” was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Bernhard and co-author Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, a political scientist and an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Women not more likely to quit than men

Researchers analyzing 200,000-plus local and state candidates, running in more than 22,000 jurisdictions throughout the United States from 1950 to 2018, found that women who lose elections are no more likely to quit politics than men who lose. They argue that if women are more cautious and risk-averse, as researchers in economics, political science and social psychology have previously suggested, it is at the point they choose to either run for office or not — not after a loss.

“Rather than rebutting previous theory, our results suggest a more nuanced theory of gender and political candidate persistence,” researchers said in the paper.

Researchers also collected dozens of media clips from 2018, including from Fox News and the Christian Science Monitor, in which the recent surge in women candidates for office was seen by those commenting as temporary.

Election data was collected from a variety of sources, including California local races, and mayoral and state legislative races nationwide.

These are the arenas where most candidates begin their political careers, and where more women are likely to run for election. The elections researchers analyzed included school district, community college district, city and county elections as well as legislative elections.

“Unsurprisingly, those who win their races are much more likely to run for office in subsequent elections,” researchers said in their paper. Among state legislative candidates throughout the country, winners are 51 percentage points more likely to run again than losers; among California local candidates, 18 percentage points; and among mayoral candidates nationwide, 47 percentage points.

In these data, propensity to run again after loss are similar for women candidates and men candidates, researchers found.

In analyzing the data, researchers found no statistically significant differences in candidates’ responses to losing these races. In state legislative elections, for example, men who lose are 38 percentage points less likely to run again than when they win, while women are 39 percentage points less likely to run again. Overall, the effect of losing for first-time candidates is more likely to discourage them from running again than for experienced candidates, but again there were no distinguishable differences by gender.

Once women overcome the barriers of running for office in the first place, they are just as likely to persist as men. — Rachel Bernhard, co-author of the study and assistant professor of political science

“Since many women who ran in 2018 and 2020 will have to wait four years to run again, it’s too soon for us to say exactly what the long-term effects of those surges were — but based on the data we have, we are optimistic that many of those women are here to stay.

“We hope that these results will be encouraging for the people and organizations who are investing in women and working to get more women in office,” she said. “While there is a lot of work to be done to get to gender equality in politics, this study shows that those investments aren’t lost even when women lose elections.”

Media Resources

More information on women in elections is located at the #EmpireSuffrageSyllabus, a project of UC Consortium for the Study of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality History in the Americas.

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