Lots of folks are throwing around the phrase, “Year of the Woman,” to describe the 2018 election. And, understandably so. Everywhere you look, it seems, a woman is introducing herself as a candidate for Congress. Some have done it while climbing a rock face, others from the deck of an air carrier where they once landed military jets.
As my colleague David Wasserman has noted, of the 56 most competitive House races in the country, 28—or 50 percent—feature a viable woman candidate.
Yet, according to Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University and a renowned expert on the topic, the number of women running for office is significant, but it’s not record-breaking. She tells me that “this cycle, women comprise nearly 22 percent of congressional candidates. In 2010 and 2014, it was approximately 19 percent. So, while that represents an increase, it’s nowhere near the increase the raw numbers of women running would suggest.” Of course, we need to wait until after the primary season to determine the percentage of women nominees compared to previous elections.
Instead, of a “Year of the Woman,” she notes, we are looking at the “Year of the Democratic Candidate.” Yes, lots of Democratic women are running, Lawless argues, but lots of Democratic men are too. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that while most of the focus is on Democrats (and they make up 69 percent of the 385 women who have filed for House and Senate seats thus far), the most recent additions to Congress are Republican women: two who won special elections (Karen Handel in GA-06 and Debbie Lesko in AZ-02), and Cindy Hyde-Smith who was appointed to the Senate in Mississippi.
Instead, the real record that may be shattered this year is the gender gap.
Here’s how the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University defines the gender gap.
A gender gap in voting refers to a difference between the percentage of women and the percentage of men voting for a given candidate, generally the winning candidate. Even when women and men favor the same candidate, they may do so by different margins, resulting in a gender gap. In every presidential election since 1980, a gender gap has been apparent, with a greater proportion of women than men preferring the Democrat in each case.
For example, in 2016, 41 percent of women and 52 percent of men reported voting for Donald Trump—a gender gap of 11 points. The gender gap in 2012 was 10 points; 55 percent of women and 45 percent of men reported voting for President Obama. In recent mid-term elections, however, the gap has been in the single digits.
The gender gap in 1994 was 8 points, it was 7 points in 2010, and 5 points in 2006.
This year, is likely to shatter that record. Given what we are seeing now, it seems like double-digit gender gap—and one much larger than 10 points, is possible if not likely.
As you can see from three of the most recent generic ballot polls (Monmouth, Quinnipiac and Pew), the gender gap ranges from 11-17 points. Given that President Trump’s approval rating among women in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was just 36 percent, it shouldn’t be all that surprising to see women breaking away from Republicans for Congress.
But, it’s also clear that men are breaking more strongly for GOP candidates than they did back in previous midterms. In fact, when you look back at 2006, Democrats actually carried men by 3 points (50 percent to 47 percent). The most recent polling shows Democrats trailing among men by double digits.
Given how early in the cycle these three polls were taken, there are still lots of undecided voters. Even so, it wouldn't surprise me to see Democrats take more than 55 percent of the female vote. Nor would it surprise me to see Republicans take a double-digit share of the male vote.
Will this gap impact the actual results of the election? If women turn out a much higher percentage than men (women have traditionally made up 51-53 percent of the vote) and give a bigger percentage of their vote to Democrats than men give to Republicans, that can have a significant impact on election results. The important caveat, of course, is that each district and state is a unique situation and may look different from the national “generic” vote.
The most important takeaway, however, may be an election that divides the country along gender lines to a degree we’ve never before seen.
Historical Exit Poll Gender Gap
Current Polling Gender Gap
Image: AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander