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OPINION

When you hear ‘electability,’ think women and people of color

When on the ballot, women of all races and men of color win elections as often as white men do.

Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts celebrated her 2018 win at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, Nov. 6, 2018.
Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts celebrated her 2018 win at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, Nov. 6, 2018.John Tlumacki

Just a few months ago, the Democratic presidential primary field was historically diverse, and looking a lot like today’s America, which is 51 percent women and 40 percent people of color. Today the primary field more closely resembles the skewed demographics of American politics in general. Across local, state, and federal offices, white men hold more than double their share of seats: At 30 percent of the population, they’re 62 percent of elected leaders. And when you tally up Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Tom Steyer, they’re 62 percent of the Democratic presidential nominees.

You might think this is simply what voters want, but we’ve been running the numbers for a half-decade, and our findings consistently show that Americans don’t want an old boys’ club in charge. In fact, when on the ballot, women of all races and men of color win elections as often as white men do.

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The challenge lies in giving voters a choice. Long before we go to the polls, party officials and major donors — the gatekeepers of American politics — weigh in with money and influence to shape the candidate pipeline. And all too often, their decisions are driven by false assumptions about the superior “electability” of white men.

Look at the 2018 election. Comparing who ran to who won, women over-performed: At 32 percent of candidates, women of all races were 34 percent of winners. Men of color were 6 percent of candidates and 7 percent of winners. In fact, the only group that dipped slightly were white men, who were 61 percent of candidates but only 60 percent of winners.

It’s true that white men dominate politics — but not because they’re more “electable.” Instead, white men have an artificially inflated win record because, until recently, no one else was recruited to run. Now that the political landscape is changing (at least on one side of the aisle), voters are catapulting candidates into office who reflect our country’s rich diversity of life experiences, talents, and demographics.

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Representative Ayanna Pressley’s 2018 victory in Massachusetts was part of a nationwide disruption to the white male-dominated status quo. While still underrepresented, women-of-color candidates actually outpaced their white and/or male counterparts in 2018 victories. For example, at 8 percent of candidates for Congress, women of color won 9 percent of seats, achieving a higher win ratio than white women or men of any race. And for statewide office (governor, treasurer, attorney general, etc.), women of color were 7.5 percent of candidates and 8 percent of winners, a win ratio no other demographic was able to beat. In Illinois, Lauren Underwood defeated an eight-year Republican incumbent. In New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated a 10-year incumbent and in Kansas, Sharice Davids unseated a Republican incumbent and became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, just to name a few.

Let’s return to that statewide office. Some pundits claim that when it comes to electability, voters can tolerate women in those modest, collaborative roles like senator or state legislator, but prefer their executive leaders male and white. Not so. As of 2018, our findings show, 38 percent of all statewide executive offices are held by women, up from 24 percent in 2015. That’s a whopping 57 percent increase in just three years.

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Women’s political gains are in no way confined to liberal enclaves. In Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Michigan, women state legislators increased by 50 percent or more in 2018. Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas also saw significant state legislative gains by women. In fact, in 2018, women state legislators increased in all but three of the 50 states, and in Virginia’s 2019 elections, women helped flip control of Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Since the election of Donald Trump (and Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win), our political demographics have been shifting at unprecedented rates. Before the 2016 election, women were adding seats in Congress at an anemic growth rate of 2 percent. At that pace, gender parity was going to take 100 years. From 2017 to 2019, by contrast, the rate of growth for women in Congress virtually exploded to 21 percent, as voters sent an additional 22 women to the House and Senate. If that were to continue — which would require huge changes in both major parties — we’d see congressional gender parity in about 10 years.

We can’t say for sure what will happen in 2020, but change is afoot. Now it’s time for the gatekeepers — who choose the candidates and shape the media narrative — to catch up. When gatekeepers act more like bouncers, letting only the usual suspects into the club, our democracy takes a hit and voters lose. The message from American voters is clear: We want elected leaders who look like us and who reflect our life experiences. White men may have a monopoly on elected office, but they have no monopoly on electability. There, it’s women who rule.

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Brenda Choresi Carter is director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign.