Chronic Challenges

Toughness Continued to be a Major Issue for Women Candidates.

One woman staffer interviewed spoke about her candidate with frustration, saying, “Oh she’s tough, but not the right kind of tough.” This issue continues to confound. What are the elements of “the right kind of tough” for women candidates? For those running against sitting Governors in 2008 the issue also seemed to be: Could you be an effective challenger without being an aggressor?

Being seen as a tough female candidate was a strong negative for voters, along with running a negative campaign and being too partisan. Toughness is seen as separate from effectiveness. This was true for male voters who have traditionally cared about toughness the most. For women voters, perceptions of toughness had no impact on their vote.

Focus group research showed that toughness was the most difficult trait to display while maintaining likeability among voters. Particularly, women candidates had to show strength in ways that are not off-putting to men. In the 2008 research, likeability became an even more significant indicator of success.

The issue of toughness was raised frequently as campaigns weighed what is too tough or not tough enough. In our research, “too tough” was defined as unapproachable and cold, which, as seen in the past, quickly translates to unpleasant and not likeable.

There appear to be many different shades to the right kind of toughness. For some, the right kind of toughness was deemed to be that which required people to take you seriously. Strength of leadership is a key dimension for women. “Exhibit edge.” “Command respect.” “Evoke anxiety from those who might cross you.”

Conversely, when people were describing the absence of toughness, they said, “no real zingers,” “not a real arm twister.”

For others, toughness is strongly correlated with competence: “She knows her stuff.” Some consultants and staff believed that voters admired candidates who exhibited a personal capacity to respond and counter-attack and saw that as evidence of toughness.

The newest ingredient mentioned for the “right kind of toughness” is competitiveness. Specifically, it’s the type of competitiveness that good sports exhibit – a game quality that enables a skilled player to take a risk.

Aggressive criticism of an opponent translated into “negative” campaigning.

The opponents of women candidates were eager to tag female challengers as negative campaigners. That was a dangerous perception – seen as very partisan, which was unpopular with voters.

In general, the winning mix was a combination of competence, clarity, efficiency and decisiveness as presented by the candidate personally and by a campaign which mirrored her precision. Third party validation also helped here.

Affect – or candidate favorability – was the strongest predictor of voting in the gubernatorial elections. Traits that predicted positive affect included being honest and ethical, solving problems, being likeable, having the right priorities and working with the state legislature. Negative predictors included running a negative campaign, being too partisan and being seen as a typical politician.

Appearance Continues to be a Stumbling Block for Women Candidates.

This is particularly true of those candidates who were not fully prepared for scrutiny before stepping into the spotlight. Female journalists, both print and broadcast, were particularly aware of the challenges that hair, clothes and make-up presented for women candidates and men candidates did not have those same challenges.

Personal presentation is still dissected. Voice, hairstyle, height, seating and posture were all mentioned more often referring to women candidates in the press. Women also believe they get more unsolicited advice than men receive and on much more personal aspects of their candidacies.

In the focus groups, there was a lot of commentary on the way women look. Men and women were paying attention to how women looked and came across, and there was heightened visibility and criticism.

Debates are Complicated Exercises that can Derail a Good Campaign and Divert Good Candidates.

While television and radio ads and news coverage and editorials are the most common sources of information for voters, significant proportions of voters in each state also report watching the debates.

Voters were critical of the female candidates debate performances. In the focus groups, women candidates were not coming across positively and were expected to look gubernatorial. Women had trouble appearing confident, competent and likeable. Being comfortable and confident is important and women are critiqued when they are perceived as lacking in this area.

Debates are viewed as “high risk” events rather than an opportunity to score points with voters. This is true even when the female candidate is a challenger.

For women candidates, debates absorb a great deal of campaign time internally: prep time, study time, practice time.

Women candidates make debates a focal point of their anxiety, requiring hours of prep time and coaching, meticulous policy papers and briefing books. The net effect is that while some women candidates perform well and convey competence, they often do not project likeability or warmth in debates.

As one candidate said, “Every podium in America is made for a 6-foot man,” suggesting the whole exercise is slightly rigged against women.

Words often used to describe candidate debate performances: “nervous,” “unsure,” “tough,” “negative.”

There is a not-so-subtle sexism conveyed by male candidates to female candidates that becomes apparent in debates. It has a mocking or dismissive quality and has the effect of belittling the women. Men use phrases like “so many misstatements, so little time,” “she didn’t have her facts straight.” Or a male candidate will mock a trait like collaboration by saying, “We can’t make a decision without gathering round and singing kumbaya” or he will question her seriousness, “I’m not sure where she’s getting her data from.”

One woman candidate described her opponent’s attitude toward her in debates: “…that I didn’t know what I was talking about … and he would do it the way a man tries to diminish a woman’s comment, you know, ‘so many lies, so little time,’ something like that.”

Male candidates are more likely to correct an opponent’s point than outright disagree with them. A man will suggest that his female opponent misunderstands an issue when she has questioned his position.

Men use their physical size to establish presence and command of the debate space. Women do not tend to fill up the space even behind their own lectern.

Some women candidates found that personalizing an issue before launching into the facts and figures of the policy connected them to a debate audience and made them more comfortable. Their advisors believed it conveyed warmth.

Confidence is a Critical Element in Performing All Aspects of Campaigning.

Yet even the best women candidates experience self doubt. Communicating confidence is key to showing leadership in successful debates and public presentations.

Some observers thought that candidate confidence grew with improved performance; others believed that a confident candidate could improve her performance. Confidence is critical to creating the presence that audiences expect in a “star driven” culture.

Some women candidates made decisions that seemed to undercut their own confidence: dressing differently or changing their appearance; campaigning on issues that were not their passion and which they did not believe were critical to their voters.

At some point in their quest to be Governor, many female candidates lose their sense of themselves and struggled to recover their authenticity.

“I had to struggle because I was not me. I should have had a strong woman with me from day one in all my prep sessions and in all my decisions….”

“I was never centered. I felt like I was an employee.” Referring to a reporter who covered her race, one candidate described his attitude toward her: “I didn’t provide the leadership, the showmanship he believed was necessary.”

When asked what women candidates need to know or learn, a female journalist had an extraordinary answer that went right to the heart of confidence: “I think it’s embracing gender and not being afraid of it, not making it an issue either. I think there’s something that women bring to the table that is wonderful and to some degree unique. And I don’t think we should shy away from that. I think that can be used and celebrated and be part of the discussion. As a woman, what do I bring to governance and how I am going to look at these issues and lead? And I think it’s different and I think it’s good. And I think too many women are still wanting to lead in a traditional way or say they are …”

Women candidates remain reluctant to use all the strengths they have to win. Campaign teams agree that women candidates today enjoy greater voter acceptance of their whole lives. Mother, wife, professional, care giver, athlete are all features of a well-rounded leader that can be used to good effect. Yet, these women candidates tended to make use of only a few of their roles/personas.