The Economist, 02/17/2018 - Women could be the undoing of Donald Trump
By James Astill
IF DEMOCRATIC strategists could build a candidate for Pennsylvania’s sixth congressional district, she would probably look something like Chrissy Houlahan. A 50-year-old former air-force captain, entrepreneur and chemistry teacher with Teach for America, Mrs Houlahan appears, crucially, to have been none of those impressive things for political effect. Until recently she had not contemplated running for anything. And if she had, she says, speaking on the fringe of a small gathering of voters in Valley Forge, a wealthy suburb northwest of Philadelphia, she would have considered herself unsuitable: “I’m a very private person and have never asked anything from anyone before.” The Damascene moment that brought her, and hundreds of Democratic women candidates like her, on to the campaign trail was Donald Trump’s election. “I was raised to respect democracy,” she says. “But I felt on this occasion the people had got it wrong.”
While struggling to reassure her gay daughter and Holocaust-survivor father, both of whom questioned whether America was still safe for them, Mrs Houlahan sent her CV to Emily’s List, an organisation that tries to get pro-choice women elected. It seemed like the best way to honour her family motto, “Highest, best use”—meaning, she explains, “Do the hardest thing you can to make best use of your abilities.” Calm, purposeful, but with a hint of her old diffidence, Mrs Houlahan is now working her tail off to flip a district whose Republican incumbent, Ryan Costello, romped home in 2016, but which chose Hillary Clinton over Mr Trump. There are 23 such districts, mostly dominated by the sorts of cautious suburban conservatives who live in Valley Forge. If the Democrats win them, in mid-term elections that are traditionally a referendum on the president, they will probably take back the House of Representatives.
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Amid the rancour of American politics, the large number of first-time women candidates the Democrats will field is unequivocally positive. Around 400 women, mostly Democrats, are planning to run for the House, at least 50 for the Senate and 79 for governor. That is far more than have previously stood for any of those offices. At state and local levels, the picture is the same. In 2015 and 2016 around 900 women consulted Emily’s List about standing for office; since Mr Trump’s election, over 26,000 have.
That such numbers are extraordinary is in part testament to how far America lags on this issue. Less than 20% of members of the current House of Representatives are women. That puts America 99th in an international ranking of women’s representation. This is despite a couple of previous “years of the women”, as the current cycle is inevitably being called. The most recent, 1992, saw a smaller spike in women candidates—as now, mainly on the left—sparked by the chauvinist handling of Anita Hill, who had accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, during his confirmation hearing. In turn, this led to a rise in the number of congresswomen. But it has since levelled off because of rising barriers to entry, including a decline in the number of competitive seats and soaring campaign costs, which are especially forbidding to political outsiders.
To generate a new surge, that example suggested, was likely to require another high-profile case of chauvinism. Mr Trump provided so many, both in his private behaviour and his behaviour towards Mrs Clinton, that over 2m women marched in protest the day after his inauguration. The #MeToo meme has since turned the marches into a grander cultural movement. And still Mr Trump keeps doubling down. In the past week he has defended a senior aide and alleged wife-beater, Rob Porter, and also suggested the backlash against sexual harassment has gone too far. Of the many culture clashes America’s patriarch-in-chief has engineered over the past year—with black footballers, Hispanic migrants, transgender soldiers and other emblems of the socioeconomic changes his supporters fear—this is by far the riskiest.
If Mr Trump has a calculation, it is that sticking it to a lot of self-righteous Democratic women will cost him little support among women who vote Republican, while delighting their husbands. That is logical. His defeat of Mrs Clinton showed the great extent to which partisan loyalty trumps genders. Hardly any Republican women, who tend to be older than Democrats and more conservative in their views on gender relations, among other things, voted for her. Yet mid-terms are not won by wooing the other side’s supporters, but by whichever party turns out its own voters. On that basis Mr Trump appears to have handed the Democrats an enormous advantage. By inspiring so many new candidates to come forward—as “an outraged sorority”, in Mrs Houlahan’s phrase—he has helped the party remedy one of its biggest weaknesses, the shallowness of its bench. In the process, the confusion of left-wing groups that have been leading the opposition to Mr Trump, including Emily’s List and Indivisible, a grass-roots group which introduced many of the newbie candidates to activism, has started to coalesce. Moreover, as the surge in women candidates also suggests, Mr Trump’s chauvinism may have stirred up Democratic voters across the board.
Nice to #MeToo
There are reasons to wonder whether they will remain energised. Whereas Democratic voters turned out in droves for Virginia’s recent legislature elections, and elected many women candidates there, they showed less enthusiasm for New Jersey’s elections, held the same day. That was because its governor’s race (won by Phil Murphy, a bland Democrat) was uncompetitive. This suggests the gender war is not sufficient to motivate many Democratic voters. Yet in the mid-terms, a more straightforward verdict on Mr Trump, that will be a lesser problem. And no one should bet against the president causing more chauvinist scandals to refresh Democrats’ sense of outrage. If there is an issue on which Mr Trump’s unreconstructed personality could backfire, it is this.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "The backfire effect"