Right now, it seems likely that we’ll have the wife of a president facing off against the son of a president in 2016. Or perhaps the wife of a president against the son of a governor and cabinet member. Or the wife of a president against the son of a congressman and presidential candidate.
Political analysts love to talk about the “baggage” that comes with dynastic candidates like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney and Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton. Voters talk about their repulsion at the idea of American political royalty, and their desire to see fresh, diverse, meritocratic candidates hold office. But the reality is that the advantages of dynasty hugely outweigh the disadvantages — and that might be especially true for women running for office.
Evidence for that reality comes from the fact that we keep electing the spouses and relatives of people we have already elected. Of the 44 people who have held the office of president, eight have come from just four families — the Adamses, the Bushes, the Harrisons, and the Roosevelts. If Clinton wins in 2016, it will be ten presidents in 45 that have had a family member hold that same, paramount office. As the Post’s Karen Tumulty has noted, “So entrenched are these two families in presidential politics that Americans under the age of 38 have experienced only one national election — 2012 — in which there has been no Bush or Clinton running for president or vice president.”
Similar, if less exaggerated, trends hold for the legislative branch. Over the past 200 years, about 9 percent of members of Congress have been related to a person who served in a previous Congress. Take the example of the 110th Congress, which came into office in 2007. Nine senators and 44 representatives were related to someone who had served or was serving on the Hill. In the case of the Senate, at least, nepotism might be at historical lows, but it is still shockingly high.
Why have a small number of families retained so much political sway, even as the country has gotten vastly bigger and much more diverse? Well, politicians’ relatives tend to come to campaigns with a Rolodex of donors and political advisers already in tow. They often have first-hand knowledge of running a campaign and speaking in public, and relationships with party kingmakers. Then, there’s the name recognition.
Even controlling for candidate experience, campaign expenditures, district partisanship, and other factors, dynastic candidates hold an edge, according to one study. It found that the average dynastic Democrat gets 59 percent of the two-party vote, and the average dynastic Republican 58 percent. The first-generation candidates they are competing against in open-seat races get an average of 48 percent.
To be sure, Americans claim to dislike political dynasties, even as they keep on creating them with their votes. Eight times as many respondents to one poll described the Clinton and Bush dynasties as a “bad thing” than a “good thing.” When one participant in a recent focus group suggested “he would be happy if Congress would pass a law banning anyone named Bush or Clinton from running,” Dan Balz reports, “half the people in the room agreed.” But both Clinton and Bush are running — probably along with at least two other political scions, in Romney and Paul.
But there could be one underappreciated silver lining to the tendency of voters to elect dynastic candidates: It might help boost the representation of women in high office.
Historically, women have often come into positions of political power through their fathers or husbands — and over their husbands’ dead bodies, in many cases. In the late 1970s, Diane Kincaid noted the macabre fact that of the 95 women who had served in Congress up to that point, 35 were widows taking the seat of their dear departed. That is less common nowadays, thankfully, but family ties to politics remain a common attribute of female politicians. According to one study, in 2008, about a quarter of the women in Congress or in a governor’s office had an “immediate family relation who ran for state or national-level office.” For the women who had made it into the Senate before 2008, that proportion was 56 percent.
Internationally, the same trends hold — with Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel notable exceptions, and women like Indira Gandhi, Marine Le Pen, and Isabel Perón more the rule. Today, in this country, many of the women in Congress — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Representative Gwen Graham, and Senators Lisa Murkowski and Shelley Moore Capito, to name a few — come from politically powerful families. And of course, there’s Hillary.
Why might family ties prove especially important for female candidates? My guess is that it has to do in part with the fact that women often need a nudge to run for office. Women are much more likely than men to say that someone else suggested that they run, with men much more likely to say it was entirely their own idea. It stands to reason that the women in politically connected families might get pushed or recruited to run more often. Once running, of course, female candidates with kinship ties then benefit from all the same things that male candidates do, bolstered fund-raising prowess, higher name recognition, and campaign know-how among them.
So while dynasties might not be palatable, they do seem to help put women on the Hill and in parliaments and state houses around the world — and they just might help to land a woman that Oval Office next year.
*This article appears in the January 26, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.