Katya Pollock (PO ’21)
This year’s midterm election results have proven historic for women: 117 female candidates, the most in U.S. history, have been elected to serve in either the House or the Senate. The wave of women legislators to Congress is supported by a dramatic increase in political donations made by women. With new women donors overwhelmingly leaning left, shifting donor demographics benefit women Democratic candidates the most.
This election cycle saw a 280% increase in the number of women donating to federal candidates, as compared to the 2016 election cycle. Both the number of women donors and the share of all donations made by women broke existing records. Meanwhile, the partisan gap in women’s donations widened: women were more likely in the 2018 election than ever before to donate to Democrats and liberals over Republican candidates. Women donors also made up a larger share of female candidates’ contributions: Democratic women candidates received 44% of their total campaign contributions from women, compared to Democratic men, who received just 34% from women donors.
The rise in female donors contributing to Democratic candidates may be driven partly by the after-effects of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016. Clinton’s campaign was the first major party presidential campaign to raise the majority of its donations from women, both in terms of number of donors and money raised. More than one-third of Clinton’s financial supporters were first-time donors to any political campaign. Given that political giving is habitual, women who donated for the first time during Clinton’s campaign likely donated again to Democratic candidates in this year’s midterms.
Recent activism for women’s rights, specifically the Women’s March on Washington and the #MeToo movement, may have also spurred women’s financial contributions this year. The number of women donating to political campaigns in 2017 spiked in January, the month of the Women’s March, and in November, the month immediately following allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the start of the #MeToo movement. Although over 100,000 more women donated than men in January, the dollar amount of women’s contributions still lagged behind men’s. Since women tend to donate in smaller amounts than men, increases in the number of women donating as compared to men does not necessarily translate into shifting political influence.
Women’s continued engagement in political donations could be the key to reducing the gender fundraising gap. According to an analysis by NPR, women candidates raise on average $500,000 less than their male counterparts. Data from previous election cycles shows that fundraising is critical to a campaign success: across all elections, candidates who out-spend their opponents tend to win. If women continue to donate in larger numbers and according to the preferences shown in this year’s data, female, Democratic candidates may experience a permanent boost in their financial support and, consequently, in their viability as political candidates.
Ultimately, a sustained increase in the number of women donating to political campaigns could influence policies coming out of Congress. Research by Michele Swers at Harvard University shows that gender exhibits a significant and independent effect on voting patterns for women’s issues. Controlling for constituency factors, personal characteristics, and political party, Democratic women are more likely than Democratic men to vote in favor of bills which support women’s health, abortion, and children’s and family issues. For issues beyond the direct scope of women’s rights, such as education, confounding factors such as political party, constituency factors, and personal characteristics overwhelm the influence of gender. Given women donors’ strong preference for left-leaning candidates, however, the rise in women’s donations will likely exert a secondary influence on issues beyond women’s rights by strengthening representation of the Democratic party.
This year’s surge in women donors not only signals a change to the perceived political viability of female candidates, but will likely provoke a more immediate, tangible shift in congressional voting patterns. If women’s engagement in political donations continues to increase according to the preferences laid out this year, the so-called second “Year of the Woman” could result in enduring gains for female, Democratic candidates and the causes they champion.