How women candidates are making girls feel better about politics

Author: David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht

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With a record number of women running for the Democratic nomination, and Elizabeth Warren leading in some polls, some Democrats have wondered whether nominating a woman in 2020 will mean it is 2016 all over again. Clinton’s loss embittered many women — young women in particular. It was not just that Clinton lost, it was who she lost to. And it was not just that they were frustrated with losing an election; many young women began to question American democracy itself. This is especially troubling at a time when liberal democracy is being questioned worldwide, often by young people.

But that was then. Now, we see a new faith in democracy among those previously embittered young women.

How we did our research

We say this based on a survey we gave to a national sample of 997 American teenagers, ages 15-18, in the heat of the 2016 election campaign; we then returned to the same teens in 2017 and during the 2018 midterm election campaign. (You can find more details, if you like, about our survey and analysis.)

From 2016 to 2017, there was a stunning change in how girls, especially those who identify as Democrats, viewed the state of democracy in America. In 2016, 37 percent of Democratic girls said that the political system helps people with their genuine needs. A year later, that had fallen by a substantial 20 percentage points. This drop was largest among Democratic girls. Democratic boys dropped, but by about half as much, while the attitudes of Republican boys and girls did not budge.

When we interviewed the same teens again in 2018, Democratic girls’ faith in democracy had rebounded; 30 percent said that democracy was working — not quite what it was in 2016, but much higher than a year before.

Why did Democratic girls gain faith in democracy after 2018?

Why the increased confidence in democracy? And why was it concentrated among Democratic girls? The answer lies in the historic number of women who ran in the 2018 midterm elections, many of whom were motivated by their opposition to Trump. Many Democratic girls who live in places where one or more women ran for the House, Senate, or for governor changed their minds about American democracy. Instead of unresponsive, they now saw it as representing people’s needs.

But where there were no women candidates, the needle did not move. The graph below shows the substantial increase in Democratic girls’ faith in American democracy if they live in a place where more Democratic women ran for office. There was a similar, if more modest increase, among Democratic boys and Republican girls. The exception is Republican boys, who actually became more negative toward American democracy.

It is not hard to understand why girls responded this way to women candidates, as it is an example of what we and other scholars call the “role model effect.” Previous research has found that women, and especially young women, become more politically engaged when they see women running visible, viable campaigns — even if those candidates don’t win. In 2018, the wave of women candidates generated enormous attention in both news and social media.

It is also not hard to see why Democratic girls responded particularly strongly. In 2018, most of the women running were Democrats, many of whom emphasized their status as women while running. For example, Erika Stotts Pearson of Tennessee explained that she was running for Congress “to inspire people — especially women — to work hard and work together.... Women want our voices at the table.” There were fewer Republican women running and those who did were far less likely to highlight their gender. Not surprisingly, then, we do not find that Republican girls respond to the presence of Republican women candidates.

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That didn’t happen in 2016

Moreover, we do not find a similar effect for local women candidates in the 2016 election. Nor did Hillary Clinton appear to have this effect. Because she was a candidate for national office, we obviously can’t compare communities where she ran to those where she did not.

But we can compare teenagers in 2016, both by gender and party, and we find no evidence that Clinton’s campaign triggered a wave of enthusiasm for American democracy among girls in general or Democratic girls in particular. We do not know why, but we suspect that the message of Clinton as a symbol of gender equality was drowned out, or even undermined, by other aspects of the 2016 contest, including Trump’s comments denigrating women, the sexist attacks against Clinton, and claims about foreign election interference.

But in 2018, the presence of local women candidates appeared to matter. These role models shaped what young people think about democracy, countering the narrative that youth have given up on it. It is, however, troubling that Republican boys react negatively to the presence of women candidates. Perhaps Republican boys see the political system as already responsive to them, and so they see signs of greater inclusion as threatening.

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How will 2020′s Democratic race affect girls’ attitudes?

So what about the current race for the Democratic nomination? Will 2020 be 2016 all over again, when a woman’s loss led to disillusionment? Or will it be more like 2018, when the mere presence of multiple women candidates — win or lose — generated greater faith in American democracy among many young people?

The answer lies in how the women of 2020 are framed. If, as in 2016, the historic nature of their candidacy is drowned out by other issues, we would not expect them to inspire greater confidence in our democratic system. But if, as in 2018, they are presented as path-breakers, reinforcing that ours is an inclusive democracy, they may well boost young people’s confidence that American democracy is of, by, and for all the people.


David Campbell is a professor of political science and chair of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. He is co-editor of “Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New Generation” (Harvard Education Press, 2012).

Christina Wolbrecht (@C_Wolbrecht) is a professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. She is the co-author, most recently, of “Counting Women’s Ballots: Female Voters from Suffrage Through the New Deal” (Cambridge, 2016).