Following the 2018 midterms, more women than ever were elected to both state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Prior to 2018, about 25 percent of state legislatures, and 20 percent of Congressional seats were held by women. After the November races, those numbers increased to about 29 percent and 24 percent respectively. Although more women than ever were elected to Congress, only one in ten is a Republican; overall, the share of women in Congress who are Republican is down from last session from 29 to 21. Compare that to Democrats, who went from 81 women in Congress to 106. For several decades Republicans have been falling behind Democrats on this metric, but 2018 was especially bad for them.
The notion that a party represents “people like me” is central to much research on voter motivation. The decline in the share of women among Republican office-holders, and the increase among Democratic office-holders led us to investigate which women legislators voters associate most with each party. As part of our January national issues survey, we posed a simple task to the 1,282 US voters in our sample: Name a woman who currently holds office somewhere in the United States. Specifically, we asked:
Please name any Democratic woman who currently holds elected office somewhere in the United States.
Please name any Republican woman who currently holds elected office somewhere in the United States.
Respondents then saw a single-line text bar they could use to enter pretty much any response they wanted for each item. We cleaned up the data with some fairly generous assumptions in mind: Basically, if we could reasonably infer who the respondent was talking about from a first name-last name pair, or a sufficiently distinct last name (perhaps surprisingly, only two respondents tried to squeak by with a lower-case “smith”), we gave it to the respondent.
Four in Five Voters Can Name a Democrat. Less Than Half Can Name a Republican.
Overall, 77 percent of respondents could name a Democratic woman who currently holds elected office. Forty-eight percent of respondents could name a Republican woman who currently holds elected office. Forty-five percent could name one of both, 30 percent could name a Democrat but not a Republican, and just 2 percent could name a Republican but not a Democrat.
Nancy Pelosi is the most recognized woman currently holding office in the United States. Fully 42 percent of respondents named Speaker Pelosi in our survey, including 49 percent of those who could correctly name someone. About 10 percent of respondents named California Senator Kamala Harris as an elected Democratic woman, another 10 percent named Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and about 5 percent named New York Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In total, fifty-nine unique Democratic women were mentioned, including Congresspeople like Ayanna Pressley, Jennifer Wexton, and Ilhan Omar; Senators like Kyrsten Sinema, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Diane Feinstein; and Governors like Gretchen Whitmer and Kate Brown.
Nancy Pelosi was the most recognizable Democrat to respondents across the political spectrum. Among Democrats, Speaker Pelosi, Senator Harris, Senator Warren, Representative Ocasio-Cortez made up the top tier, with Senators Klobuchar, Gillibrand, Feinstein, and Sinema forming a second tier below 5 percent apiece. A similar order prevailed among Independents. Republicans were slightly more likely to mention Maxine Waters, but only to the tune of 2-3 percent of respondents in total.
Speaker Pelosi’s widespread name recognition is likely unsurprising. The Speaker’s role in Trump’s abdication during the government shutdown he caused, as well as her role in helming the diverse and ambition-filled 116th Congress’ Democratic Caucus, have consistently kept her in the news. Some work suggests that the Speaker of the House is second only in name recognition to the President of the United States year over year, and Speaker Pelosi’s accomplishments in that role certainly don’t hurt.
Among Republicans, the modal response was… no one. Blank, NA, skipped, whatever you want to call it. Maine Senator Susan Collins was a distant second to no response at all. A bare majority of respondents, 51 percent, did not put in a response or put a name that did not correspond to an elected US official, was a Democrat, was a man, or was too ambiguous to match to anybody. Perhaps surprisingly, the partisan divide in the capacity to name names was narrow: 57 percent of Democrats did not name a Republican woman, 51 percent of Republicans did not name a Republican woman, and 43 percent of Independents did not name a Republican woman. Twenty percent of Democrats did not name an elected woman Democrat, 27 percent of Republicans did not name an elected woman Democrat, and 19 percent of Independents did not name a Democratic woman.
Maine Senator Susan Collins, currently in the news as a reasonably high-profile Republican in the Senate, was the most-recognized Republican woman officeholder. Among Republicans, however, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, Tennessee Congressperson Marsha Blackburn, Senator Collins, and failed Senate candidate-turned-Senator Martha McSally roughly split top-tier name recognition at about 7-8 percent of Republicans apiece.
Why did respondents have such a difficult time identifying a sitting elected Republican woman? Republican women may have a harder time being recognized for the simple reason that there are just fewer Republican women elected to public office. What’s more, people who identify as Republican are less likely to value women in leadership. According to polling data from Pew Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to say there are too few women in high political offices (79 percent compared to 33 percent). Republicans are also more likely to possess more traditional gender attitudes, and this might temper Republicans’ view of women’s leadership within their party, and at least explain somewhat why members from the party couldn’t recall one of their own.
Another contributing factor is that the Republican Party donor class is less likely to contribute to groups that use their resources to recruit and train women to run for office. Democrats, on the other hand, give liberally to organizations like Emily’s List and the National Organization for Women, which encourage women to run for office, or support their candidacies. This sort of support is crucial to balancing women’s representation -- and their influence once elected -- because a study finds that compared to men, women are more skeptical of recruiters, and whether recruiters will support their campaign, after their decide to run; stronger financial backing could curb this skepticism.
Across the sample, 8 percent of Democrats entered the name of a Republican woman who was not an elected official, as did 6 percent of Republicans. The most common incorrect but complete names for Republicans were Sarah Huckabee Sanders (9 respondents), Nikki Haley (6 respondents), and Sarah Palin (2 respondents). Among Democrats, the most common incorrect but complete Republican names were Sarah Palin (8 respondents), Nikki Haley (5 respondents), and Sarah Huckabee Sanders (4 respondents). The most common incorrect but complete name for Democrats was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton (25 respondents).
Respondents in our sample who could name women in office were more likely to have a college degree, were older, and were slightly wealthier. However, neither gender nor party ID made too much of a difference. This is perhaps encouraging because one might think that, on items like this, a certain amount of “motivated forgetting” may drive Democrats to report failing to be able to name a Republican, and vice versa. We did not detect such an effect here. Additionally, and perhaps surprisingly, gender did not predict being able to name a woman in office from either party.
Although it is surprising that women were no more likely to name women elected to office than men -- especially given academic scholarship that finds women in positions of political leadership have positive role model effects on women in the electorate -- women are not a monolith and do not share similar beliefs about women, power and leadership. Instead, a better predictor of being able to name a woman who holds office -- from either party -- is interest in politics, more generally. But even so, it should be alarming to Republicans that the women within their party have so little stature, compared to women within the Democratic party.
Within the parties, some differences in name recognition speak to the priorities of their various ideological subgroups. Democrats who also identify as ideologically moderate named Kamala Harris more than those who identified as ideologically very liberal (about 14 percent of moderates, vs. 11 percent of those who are very liberal), and the very liberal named Elizabeth Warren more than moderates (12 percent of moderate Democrats 21 percent of the very liberal). Among very conservative Republicans, Marsha Blackburn was the most named Republican woman, while Susan Collins was the most-named among Republicans who identified as ideologically moderate.
Taken together, responses from this survey support the argument that the GOP has a “woman problem.” This GOP “woman problem” was on full display during the Kavanaugh hearings, when the male-only Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee outsourced their questioning of Dr. Blasey Ford to outside council, Rachel Mitchell. However, the GOP has since added two women to the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Ernst and Blackburn -- both of whom already possess at least some name recognition within their party, pointing to the short bench of Republican women. Some Republicans have recognized this women problem and made faltering attempts to rectify it. For instance, Elise Stefanik, a Republican who has represented NY-21 since 2015, recently launched a new political action committee, EPAC, with the expressed interest in recruiting more Republican women to run. Her efforts however, have produced little in terms of actual results. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stefanik is a member of the moderate Tuesday Group, demonstrating another reason Republican women have trouble succeeding within their party -- they tend to be more moderate than the typical male representative. Therefore, elevating more GOP women may mean elevating more moderate members of their party -- this seems unlikely given the current direction of the GOP. As the GOP pursing increasingly anti-woman policies and Trump remains the face of the party, the trajectory will likely continue.
Author’s note: In this analysis, we opted to include a couple of legislators who were still in office the month the survey fielded (January 2019), but are no longer in office. These choices include Mia Love, Claudi Tenney and Pam Bondi.
Meredith Conroy (@sidney_b) is an Associate Professor of Political Science at California State University, San Bernardino campus.
John Ray (@johnlray) is a Senior Political Analyst at YouGov Blue.
Note: A previous version of this analysis erroneously included duplicate entries for Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn stemming from a typo that created an erroneous entry for “Marsa Blackburn.” Entries mis-coded as “Marsa Blackburn” have been edited to count for Marsha Blackburn. Seven results were affected.