Incumbency redundancy

September 26, 1994|By Myriam Marquez

A NEW STUDY of women's chances of winning elections debunks the conventional wisdom that women have a harder time than men do.

It is not a candidate's sex that is the determining factor, the study found; it is incumbency that offers a critical difference.

That's not surprising. Incumbents' races usually are better financed by special-interest money from political action committees with a stake in the incumbents' voting records.

The money, in turn, with the help of name recognition, helps incumbents finance slick advertising campaigns that many populist and underfinanced challengers, female or male, simply can't afford.

Nevertheless, the thinking is -- and I admit to such bias until recently -- that women candidates for offices ranging from the state legislature to Congress have higher hurdles to cross because many voters see women candidates as indecisive and too "touchy-feely" to fight and win political battles once in office.

In the past, political polls have seemed to bear that thinking out, with male voters, especially whites, more likely to support male candidates over women, and women voters being more in tune with the candidacies of women or more moderate-to-liberal men.

Yet the survey, conducted by the National Women's Political Caucus and released this month, found that the big reason few women end up as governors, in Congress or in state legislatures is that they simply never attempt a run.

The areas in which women candidates fared worse were the U.S. Senate and governor races. But statistically, it's hard to determine if this is a trend because in the past 22 years only 59 women have run for either the Senate or a governor's seat.

Since 1972, only 7 percent of the candidates for either house in Congress have been women. In governor races, only 6 percent have been women. Even in state legislatures, women candidates in general elections made up barely 20 percent of all candidates since 1972.

Taking information compiled by Rutgers University's Center for the American Woman and Politics, the study found that, when a seat was open and there was no incumbent, the odds were about even for either sex to win.

The Year of the Woman, as the 1992 congressional election was dubbed, was a high-water mark for female victors, precisely because of open seats. Reapportionment created new districts with no incumbents, and more members of Congress decided to retire than usual.

This study, then, should energize women to get involved in political races and put the issue of gender bias aside.

The question remains, though: Why haven't women been running in numbers comparable to those of men?

Certainly, family obligations play a part. So, too, does the time element that consumes public officeholders.

In many ways, the biases are within each woman. Public life is a sacrifice that one has to be willing to make.

It may be that men are more conditioned to make such sacrifices. After all, they have had role models throughout the centuries to follow. Women, by contrast, have just begun to blaze political trails.

Men with young families -- for example, Vice President Al Gore when he first set out for Congress from Tennessee -- are not questioned about their loyalty to their family. Women with young families inevitably will question themselves about making such a choice.

That doesn't make it right or wrong. For now, at least, it just is.

Myriam Marquez is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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