Voters historically have accorded women candidates a “virtue advantage,” seeing them as more honest and ethical than men. That perception remains, especially among Independent voters, though by a smaller margin and with significant partisan differences.
In 2010, for example, Democratic women running for governor who faced Republican men enjoyed a wide advantage on perceptions of honesty and ethics. This was a more difficult trait for Republican women who faced Democratic men. In fact, Republican women trailed Democratic men on this trait by several points. This is particularly important because voters who see women as offering unique traits like honesty are more likely to support a woman candidate.
The advantage that voters accord women on honesty can be dramatically reversed if they perceive that a woman candidate has been dishonest or acted unethically. A woman candidate who falls off her political pedestal pays a high price in the loss of voter esteem, especially among women voters who expect a woman to be different.
And because the cost of an ethical infraction is higher for a woman, campaigns against women candidates often use the well-worn strategy of launching negative attacks on character or values early in the campaign.
Women candidates’ place on the ethical pedestal is a worthwhile asset. Women can maintain that advantage by showcasing integrity, transparency, and consistency with the following key strategies.