Campaign Essentials

Contrasting with Opponents

The Challenge

Barbara Lee Family Foundation research has consistently shown that women candidates pay a higher price for contrasting, i.e. “going negative,” even though all candidates must show how they differ from their opponents—it is a necessary part of campaigning.

Some women voters say they are disappointed when they see a woman “go negative,” because they hold women candidates to a higher standard. Voters expect more from women candidates and they feel that by engaging in negative campaigning, a woman is reduced to the status of a typical politician.

They feel women should use their strengths of compassion and being relatable to overcome negativity. “I expect more from a woman [candidate] than I do a man,” as one woman said in a focus group, “because it used to be a man’s world and they always bashed, and I think a woman can have more tactfulness to not stoop to a man’s level.” Some women, especially women of color, worry if women can maintain their “femininity” and “compassion.” As one woman noted, “I just wanted to comment on the ads from the female politicians; to me they seemed a little masculine. They didn’t look soft or feminine.”

Voters typically see women as more honest and ethical than men (read more on this advantage in The Character Pedestal: Honesty and Ethics). It is important for women to maintain that advantage, even when contrasting with their opponents.

The Solution

It has long been believed that women candidates “going negative” in ads during a campaign works, but also increases their own negative ratings. There are key strategies women candidates can use that are more likely to resonate with voters. Each campaign has unique circumstances. One common thread, however, is that women candidates can and do need to use contrasts ads to win.

Some of the tactics for contrasting with an opponent are not reserved for women only. However, voters remember negative ads from women candidates more than negatives from male candidates, all other things being equal.