Cracking the Code (2002)

Lessons Learned in the Battle of 2002: Lesson 1

“One of the main things for me was [her] public speaking ability…That’s a huge part of this job, so for me, that was a big issue.”
– Focus Group Participant

Keeping Up Appearances: More Important Than You Think

While it would be ideal to have all gubernatorial candidates judged by their position on substantive issues, past experience, ability to run state government, and character, voters often judge candidates by their presentation, personal qualities and performance. This scrutiny is particularly acute for female candidates.

A female candidate who is less “tailored”—both in the way she carries herself and in her manner of dress—is perceived by both male and female voters as less qualified, less of a leader and less professional. Late-deciding voters, in particular, often focus on qualities such as tone of voice and style, especially in situations like debates.

Both the candidate and her organization contribute to voters’ assessments of her ability, preparedness and professionalism. The candidate’s personal style—clothes, hair and communication skills—are more closely scrutinized than a man’s. In addition, a woman’s campaign organization can support or undermine her efforts to convey a crisp, efficient persona.

Presentation Is Defining

Voters decide whether a female candidate is ready to be governor, in part, based on her personal presentation. In a media driven culture, this should be no surprise. But the emphasis voters place on personal style is substantial and multi-faceted. It includes appearance, performance and confidence.

“When you have a woman candidate, you always have to make sure she’s dressed right, that she looks powerful, yet approachable,” said a campaign manager.

Both male and female voters are much more judgmental about the appearance and style of a female candidate than of a male candidate. Although all candidates are judged on these attributes to some degree, women have a more difficult challenge in convincing voters to judge them on their merits rather than on their appearance.
While voters in focus groups say that it doesn’t matter what a female candidate looks like, they still extrapolate broad conclusions from a candidate’s appearance. Female voters are particularly harsh toward women candidates.

“She didn’t wash her hair,” said one female focus group partici- pant. “When I met her, she kept going like this [gesturing] and dandruff would come down. Her blouse was all wrinkled and I was shocked.” Another added, “On a personal level, she appears nervous a lot of the time, like she talks too fast. That doesn’t make me feel confident.”

Further, focus group interviews reveal that a woman who has short hair and appears “mannish” comes across as less compassionate and, therefore, less able to deal with family or children’s issues. If the candidate is unmarried, both male and female voters perceive her as less likely to share their own family values.

Tone of voice and speaking style also factor into the candidate’s presentation. Voters pay close attention to how well a female candidate speaks in public and the sound of her voice. Voters listen for distinctions between authoritative and bossy, between serious and boring, and between high-pitched and breathy or clear and steady.

“When they got her to the debates, she was a witch. That was so clear. I was shocked, actually.”

Another participant added:

“I couldn’t stand to listen to her. I would have had to move because I would not have been able to stand to listen to her voice for the next few years – ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff.”

“I want to hear her talk. Tell us what your vision is regarding the economy, budget crisis, growth – all those important issues.”
– Focus Group Participant

Misspeaking plagued several of the female candidates. However, successfully recovering from public mishaps—particularly misspeaking—also demonstrates a particular confidence.

“She didn’t intend to say [that], but it just came out of her mouth wrong,” said one campaign manager. “It was a big gaffe, but they [the media] definitely gave her a lot of credit for apologizing quickly and not making excuses. And so a story that could have just plagued us for days and days became a story that sort of petered out within three days.”

Confidence + Fiscal Focus = Authority and Leadership Ability

For voters, a confident attitude conveys many positive qualities: intelligence, competence and authority. In focus group inter- views, participants identified public performance and personal contact as the best ways to judge a candidate’s confidence. This, in turn, helped the voters assess the leadership ability of the candidate.

“I think she is confident and intelligent,” said a focus group participant. “I saw [the male candidate] fumbling over questions being asked and [he] failed to answer them. That concerns me.”

Voters believe women are naturally better on “kitchen table” issues such as education and health care, whereas women are presumed not to have experience dealing with the economy and budgets.

Candidates who focused on economic and budget issues instilled confidence in voters and appeared “in command” on the campaign trail. A female candidate who speaks authoritatively on financial issues helps voters feel comfortable and confident in her potential to lead the state.

“Even though he was trying to smear her through the debate, she still stood strong and was able to give her opinion on what she was going to do when she got in office. That’s what tough means to me,” said a focus group participant.

In order to overcome voters’ assumptions that women do not have financial experience, it’s extremely valuable to emphasize prior private or public sector financial experience. Voters believe that female candidates who deal with these issues effectively will be successful leaders and they doubt the abilities of candidates who are unconvincing.

One focus group participant remarked, “He [the male candidate] made the strongest statements about fixing the budget deficit or trying to fix the budget deficit.”

Although some female candidates might have priorities other than the economy, budget and state taxes, voters are unlikely to believe a female candidate “has what it takes” to lead the state if she does not convey a confident knowledge of these issues.

A Competent Staff Breeds Candidate Credibility

Competent and experienced staff led all of the successful campaigns. Overprotective, slow or disorganized staff convey to opinion leaders, the press and voters that the candidate is not in command of her own ship. Unsuccessful campaigns offered no end of staff mishaps.

Voters’ impressions of women candidates are shaped by several organizational factors: How efficient and responsive is the campaign to voters and the press? Does the candidate and her entourage look gubernatorial?

“The hardest thing really was not having an experienced staff to work with…I think if you were to just pick 20 opinion leaders in the state, they would tell you, well, we can’t get our calls returned, we can’t get a copy of the schedule, nobody will listen to our advice,” said a campaign manager.

Some candidates realized too late that a professional staff is an essential piece of a successful campaign. “We had some pretty inexperienced staff folks,” said one candidate. “It would have been enormously helpful to have, for instance, some place to go for good press training because I had a very energetic press per- son, but this person had never been through a statewide campaign. And a campaign at this level is very different.”

Candidates who traveled with too few or too many staff members conveyed a poor image. Too few staff members and a candidate doesn’t appear to have the proper stature to be governor; too many staff members and she’s overshadowed by the pack.

“She didn’t look gubernatorial because she wasn’t staffed like a governor should be,” said a campaign manager.

An Inspiring Candidate Appears Rested and Relaxed

Over-scheduling prevented some candidates from doing their best at the most critical events. For some of the 2002 candidates, not enough attention or planning went into distinguishing important events—for which they should be rested and prepared— from all other events.

“We would just be back-to-back and get there right before we were supposed to speak—speak—and then go to another event,” acknowledged a press secretary.

The importance of a well-planned, but controlled schedule cannot be over-stated. “When it comes down to it, I was tired,” acknowledged a candidate. “I mean, I was so tired by the time I got to the general election.”

Successful candidates paced themselves and were fresh for their most important public events. Their staffs exercised judgment and restraint in scheduling decisions – demonstrating a maturity that characterized their candidates.

“The campaign organization was highly detail-oriented,” said a campaign scheduler. “We built into the plan some leeway to make the obvious changes and moving-with-the-flow type of decision-making for scheduling.”

Successful candidates also left the job of managing the campaign up to the campaign manager, rather than involving themselves in the micro-management of staff. This discipline frees the candidate to focus on campaigning.

“I give her a lot of credit as a candidate for hiring a campaign manager she trusted and leaving the job of managing the campaign up to that person,” said one consultant.

“Our campaign was more collaborative [than most],” said a candidate. “I think that’s both a strength and a weakness…sometimes it makes the candidate get more actively involved…and candidates aren’t supposed to get into managing.”

Voters want to see an energetic candidate, particularly when they have an opportunity to get a first-hand look at her. A tired or distracted candidate does not inspire them.

For Candidates

  1. First Stop: The Professionals. Everybody needs somebody: a voice coach, a personal shopper, a stylist, a media trainer, a make-up artist. Don’t wait until midway through the campaign. Months before your announcement, do a personal inventory and get the help you need.
  2. Hire Experienced Staff. Don’t pinch pennies, and don’t be seduced by youthful enthusiasm. You are undertaking a multi-million dollar enterprise with enormous implications for the future of your state. Hire the most seasoned, experienced people you can.
  3. Set the Right Tone: Make an Excellent First Impression on Voters When You Announce for Governor. Your look, theme, setting and staging should convey the level of professionalism, preparation, clarity and organization that the voters can expect of your administration. Videotape this event. It can provide excellent footage for closing TV ads.
  4. Put Financial Expertise at the Core of Your Presentation. Voters want to know that a woman can handle budgets, taxes and the economy. Establish your financial credentials at every opportunity. Feature your financial accomplishments and committee assignments prominently when you introduce yourself to voters.
  5. Appearing Confident Breeds Confidence. Identify the three or four reasons you will be an excellent governor and keep them in the forefront of your mind. Mistakes happen; unexpected events occur. Knowing why you should be governor at all times can help you perform confidently under adverse circumstances.
  6. Travel Light, But Be Official. If you want to be taken seriously, look important. Traveling alone isn’t casual, it’s invisible. Gubernatorial candidates should always travel with at least one staff member. On occasion, add a press assistant.
  7. Don’t Over-Schedule. Campaigns are notoriously unpredictable. Unexpected events and delays happen. Demand enough time in your schedule to ensure you are prepared, rested, presentable and professional.