The Women’s March shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration energized its backers with a message to get politically engaged. The emergence of the #MeToo movement later that year provided even more momentum. But would women follow through? At the start of 2018, a midterm election year, the state government and data teams decided to find out.
The goal was ambitious: Track every woman running for Congress, statewide office and state legislature in the country, get historical numbers for comparison and follow their electoral fates through Election Day to see if the movements had led to real change. That effort, which will be ongoing throughout the year, produced its first scoop last week when AP declared a record number of women running for the U.S. House of Representatives. The newsbreak by state government team reporters Christina Cassidy and Geoff Mulvihill, and data team visual journalist Maureen Linke wins this week’s Best of the States.
The focus on women running for office this year already has produced a handful of stories, but its most important feature is the painstaking process to compile a comprehensive list of all women who have declared their candidacies for state or federal office. Cassidy and Linke have been leading this ongoing effort. As they began building out their spreadsheet, it became clear that the number of women formally declaring candidacies for the House would cross a historic threshold at some point in the spring, a sign that the movements had spawned real political action. The question was when that would happen and which state filing deadlines would be decisive.
Based on her state-by-state research and review of the filing calendar, Cassidy determined that the threshold would likely be crossed the first week of April – when she was on vacation. She prepared background for a story and handed off to Linke and Mulvihill. They focused on getting data from Virginia and Tennessee, the two states likely to provide the new record. It was Mulvihill’s job to bird-dog both states, calling their election officials to find out when the final candidate lists would be posted and then working to confirm the number of women on each.
Tennessee was expected to come first. Virginia was a more difficult case: The candidate filing deadline had passed, but the state had a tradition of not posting the final list of names until weeks later. Mulvihill persisted, strategically calling the elections office and refreshing its web page throughout the day. On a Thursday morning, Tennessee posted its final list, bringing the total to within one of the record. In a surprise, Virginia posted its list shortly after. Mulvihill knew this only because he had been paying such close attention. The record would be set, but by how much?
In the meantime, Linke was working on the data component that was essential to making the eventual call. Using a list of candidates from the Center for American Women and Politics as a starting point, she wrote a scraper to draw the data from the group’s website into a Google spreadsheet the team could access. She then added new candidates and updated filing statuses for existing candidates based on the filings Mulvihill shared. That allowed AP to quickly come up with a tally of 309 and break the news ahead of the Rutgers-based center by a full day. Because filing remains open in roughly half the states, that meant the old record of 298 would be shattered by the time the races in all states had been set.
The ongoing effort is ambitious: Track every woman running for Congress, statewide office and state legislature in the country through Election Day.
But the story was more than about just a number. Pre-reporting by Cassidy and Mulvihill provided fresh quotes from some of the women who had decided to run, from both major parties. They discussed why they decided to become candidates and their priorities if elected. Linke used the data to create two charts that became part of an APNews stack.
The play underscored how this topic has become a key undercurrent of the midterms. In the hours after it was filed, it was No. 1 for customer downloads and tops on NewsWhip, and was the No. 4 story on APNews with more than 2,300 screen views (even then, it was the top non-Washington-dated story). It also had 2,600 Facebook interactions, made the top 10 in Axios over two cycles, was a top story on NPR and landed on two dozen front pages, including the Orange County Register.
For breaking significant news on one of the most dominant political trends of the year, Cassidy, Linke and Mulvihill share this week’s $300 Best of the States award.