Are Women Candidates Just Candidates After All?
“There was a time when just being a woman set you apart…Those days are gone.”
In the November 2002 elections, 26 women filed for governor in 20 states, 10 women won their primaries and 4 were elect- ed. In 2003 and 2004, Louisiana Governor Blanco won an off-year election, and Lieutenant Governors Jodi Rell and Olene Walker filled vacant governor’s seats, bringing the total to 9 women in office—the highest number of women governors to serve simultaneously in U.S. history.
As the numbers of women seeking and winning governorships increase, voters’ presumptions about the significance or meaning of gender to a candidacy appear to be shifting. Our previous research identified a tendency among voters to believe that women candidates are more likely to be reformers and more likely to be honest.
The 2002 data suggest that when characterizing a woman’s candidacy, voters are less likely to have these beneficial predispositions.
The more women compete for and win the top spot, the more opportunity voters have to see women repeat the patterns and rhythms of previous all-male elections. Or perhaps women candidates are outright adopting male behaviors and strategies. Whatever the reason, female candidates are not necessarily presumed to be a political “breath of fresh air.”
Another predisposition we noted in the previous research, however, persists in the 2002 findings. Older blue-collar women, particularly those who choose their candidate late in the process, hold women candidates to a higher standard. They require more evidence that a woman candidate deserves their vote.
Women Have Achieved Parity in Fundraising
In this cycle, most women running for governor raised as much money as their male counterparts. In 1998 and 2000, female candidates faced greater personal and institutional hurdles in soliciting donations. Few candidates in 2002 were daunted by the challenges of raising the millions they needed to mount a competitive race. The 2002 candidates were more clinical and methodical; fundraising was a routine task for which they were well prepared.
Women Candidates Don’t Necessarily Represent Change
In previous elections, when voters were looking to change the status quo, women had an advantage – they were, by definition, “different.” At the turn of the millennium, New Yorkers elected a First Lady to the U.S. Senate, Democrats chose their first woman leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, California boasted a female majority in its 33 member Democratic delegation to the House, and more Republican women were elected to Congress and state legislatures than at any preceding point in history with 650 Republican women serving in state legislatures.
In 2002, outsider status signaled change to voters much more than a candidate’s gender. Party affiliation, past leadership history and positions on issues all played into the calculation of which candidate would actually shake up the status quo. Gender was part of this calculation, but did not dominate it.
Male voters rarely say gender inherently represents change, but some women voters do. Women in the focus groups said, “She’s a female, we need a change,” and, “Put a woman in that position and it might open the door for change. Give her a try.”
In 2002, voters were clearly ready for something new. A record number of governorships turned over, but focus group participants revealed that party affiliation drove the desire for change more than gender, and female gubernatorial candidates were less likely to be seen as symbols of reform. They were also less likely presumed to be running to “shake up the status quo”.
Women May Not Automatically Have a Virtue Advantage
Prior to the 2002 elections, voters viewed women as above “politics as usual” and more honest than their male counterparts. This virtue advantage, however, was not as prevalent in 2002.
“Women were assumed to be a breath of fresh air, not part of the old boy network,” said one pollster. “There was a time when just being a woman set you apart … Those days are gone.”
In 2002, voters did not credit women candidates with being “above the fray,” and in some cases – particularly with candidates who were closely aligned with a state’s current administration – they considered the female candidates to be “insiders” with all the dark implications that title carries.
“I think her failure as a candidate came because she was too much tied into the political establishment.”
And voters are more wary of a female insider than they are of a male insider.
“You can’t deny she was an insider,” said a focus group participant. “She should have discussed more specifically how she wasn’t going to be behind the scenes wheeling and dealing.”
Being tough enough to manage the system – whether it’s a state bureaucracy or a partisan legislative caucus – but not become mired in it is still a challenge for women. However, the research shows that meeting that challenge and preserving one’s “out- sider” credentials can be valuable at the ballot box.
Late-deciding Voters Wait for a Female Candidate to Prove Herself
Our research turned up a quirk in the decision-making patterns of some voters, particularly older, blue-collar women.
Many of these women, who initially appeared enthusiastic about a woman’s candidacy, got nervous about voting for a woman toward the end of the campaign. They still wanted more proof that the female candidate deserved their vote. Some seized on a single gaffe or cited a lackluster debate performance. For these late deciders, the bar was set very high for women candidates.
For this reason, women candidates need to finish strong. In close races, late-deciders can hold the key to success, and campaign teams should chart a specific strategy for communicating with them.
A Woman’s Family and Personal Life Matter More To Voters
In 2002, husbands became a target: their work, contracts and business relationships came under scrutiny. As in previous elections, voters were afraid that candidates with children would be distracted or that the children wouldn’t get enough attention. If the candidate didn’t have children, voters worried that she couldn’t relate to family issues. However, voters didn’t question whether a man could be both a good father and a good governor.
When the women candidate was childless or unmarried, integrating other family members into their campaigns helped, but whispers about unmarried women candidates persisted.
While more women candidates are winning high office and achieving parity in fundraising, some are losing their luster with voters. As voters become more accustomed to women running and winning high office, electoral advantages once associated with female candidates may be wearing off, and older women especially hold them to a higher standard.