Women donate less to politics and risk being ignored by elected officials

Candidates ignore female voters at their peril: Women dominated men since 1980. Census data shows that nearly 10 million more women than men voted in the 2020 elections.

But when it comes to another form of political participation – giving money to candidates – it’s the men who take the lead. We found that men donated more money than women to state-wide election candidates for executive positions such as attorney general and secretary of state, between 2001 and 2020.

We have found that men generally contribute more financially to statewide races, creating a large gender gap in political voice. This disparity exists in primary and general elections, between the two political parties, and is reflected in the most recent electoral cycle from 2017 to 2021.

Political contributions do not guarantee victory or political influence. However, helping candidates win through campaign contributions is one way to influence their policies once they are in office. Indeed, certain political sciences to research notes that elected officials are more sensitive to their donors than to other Americans.

So while candidates may court women’s votes during the election campaign, they may be less interested in women’s priorities once elected.

Differences between parties

Public office holders attract less public attention than the President and members of Congress, but we have studied these races because the work of public office holders has such profound effects on people’s lives.

state secretaries, for example, administering electoral laws and state elections, an increasingly publicized and controversial role. state attorneys general make sure state laws are enforced. And they often work together to collectively challenge Federal Obamacare policies at immigration. State elections have consequences both within and beyond its borders.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger holds a press conference on the state of ballot counting on November 6, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jessica McGowan / Getty Images

Our study, carried out in collaboration with OpenSecrets, a non-partisan research organization that tracks money in politics, found that from 2001 to 2020, female donors gave only 23% of general election contributions in statewide races for positions such as Attorney General and Secretary of State. The men gave 77%.

These results echo our companion report on the elections for governor. Other scholars who estimate both race and sex of donors find that women of color represent the smallest percentage of donors.

The gender gap is not symmetrical between the two main political parties. Women make up a higher percentage of contributors to Democrats than Republicans in statewide races for positions such as attorney general and secretary of state, as is the case in Congress and of the governor races.

In some of the major contests we looked at, women are on par with men as the proportion of contributors to Democrats. But overall, women make up less than half of donors and provide less than half of funds raised by Democratic candidates statewide.

Implications for candidates

We find that the winners generally collect more money than their opponents, which confirms that money matters.

Under-representation of donors may contribute to the under-representation of women among elected officials from all over the state. Since women give disproportionately to female candidates for state leadership, the low percentage of female donors disproportionately hurts female candidates: more female donors means more resources for female candidates.

Resources are particularly scarce for applicants who are women of color. There is a shortage of women of color in leadership positions statewide, despite the election of Vice President Kamala Harris and the record number of women of color serving in Congress and state legislatures. No black woman or Native American woman has ever won the governorship in any state. Our research finds that women of color raise less than white applicants and are much less likely to apply for jobs statewide.

The current number of female governors – eight – is one less than the historic high, made for the first time in 2004. Without any majority woman among the candidates for the post of governor in the two states with elections in 2021, no woman will be elected governor this year.

Letitia James, New York Attorney General, standing at a lectern, speaking into a microphone, with an American flag behind her.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announces legal action to dissolve the NRA on August 6, 2020, in New York City.
Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

Our two reports show that state-wide executive candidates are less likely to fund their own campaigns and that women raise more money than men through small contributions. These differences likely mean that fundraising is more difficult for statewide executive candidates who are women.

According to many statewide political candidates and practitioners we surveyed, men are more likely than women to have personal relationships with wealthy donors and to have access to donor networks; and donors and other political gatekeepers may mistakenly believe that women – especially women of color – will not be successful candidates, making fundraising more difficult for them.

To research shows that women have filled many long-standing gaps in political participation, such as volunteering in the countryside and contact with government officials. Gains in education and labor opportunities for women have expanded women’s personal resources in terms of income and civic skills, facilitating political donations from women. And women’s organizations and networks such as EMILY List, See PAC and Higher heights mobilized women to make regular donations. Recent elections, including those of 2018, saw an increase in donors

With the persistence of income inequalities due to gender and race, and the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of women’s donations is unclear. But as the Election 2022 takes place, observers can check to see if the women are giving – and not just whether the women are running.

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