The Clinton-Palin Factor
No one believed a race was won or lost because of gender. The candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were deemed to have no impact or a slightly positive one. This latter finding was among those who believed that having more competent women in the environment made it more likely voters would see other women candidates as competent.
Voters felt gender was not a factor in their vote for Governor and that not having a woman Presidential candidate did not make a difference either way in their vote for Governor. However, when asked to consider the issue of women in politics more generally, the majority of voters across the four states said it was important to the country to have more women in elected office. Women and Democrats tend to place greater personal importance on having more women in office.
Across the four states, women tended to be more likely than men to feel that having a woman gubernatorial candidate in 2008 would help women candidates in the future.
Interestingly, having top-of-the-ticket women in the political environment and on the ballot in states where women were also running for Governor may have given voters the impression that more women were running for office. Overall, the number of women running for all offices has stayed relatively flat.
Multivariate analysis 1revealed older women showed more support for the female candidates than younger women when we controlled for party identification. Being older predicted positively, being younger was neutral.
The most effective and disciplined campaign team was gender balanced; the most stressful for the candidate was one with all male senior staff.
Experienced day-to-day campaign staff was difficult for these woman candidates to find.
Institutional and Personal Support
State parties easily abandoned challenger campaigns. The Presidential campaign provided an urgent obligation or a convenient excuse to do so depending on your point of view.
It appears that voters are more supportive of a female candidate than business, labor or party insiders. All four women candidates felt this in some form or other.
All candidates and some staff reported the importance of a support network for the candidate and all agreed that personal support was critical. Some valued the advice and connection to other women Governors, who were also helpful raising money and sending staff.
Message and Issues
Change was the key dynamic in the 2008 elections. Yet women had a hard time establishing themselves as change agents and lost when they weren’t perceived this way. Women also had trouble conveying that they were the candidates of change and effectiveness simultaneously. In focus groups, voters did not give women candidates an automatic advantage on representing change.
In 2008, voters identified the economy as by far the top issue they wanted to see addressed by the next Governor. However, the economy was a challenging issue for all the female candidates. This was true too with male and female voters. Ironically, being good on education and health care for women candidates did not increase their credibility on the economy, as it did for male candidates.
Women also had little credibility on non-traditional issues that would have communicated toughness on economic dimensions like fiscal responsibility.
Male consultants stated a preference to run women on issues of education and health. They believe that voters see women as having an edge on these issues. They don’t believe voters readily accept a woman’s competence on economic, budget and finance issues. Therefore, the downturn in the economy was viewed as treacherous by even the winning campaigns.
Stem cell research, school vouchers and choice were used in two of the four races to differentiate the candidates from opponents. These issues had declining resonance with voters as the economy collapsed.
Male candidates repeatedly charged that their female opponents would be bad fiscal managers. “Would raise your taxes.” “Be for an income tax.” “Fail to curtail runaway spending or weed out waste.”
Certain leadership qualities are particularly important. If voters perceived a candidate to be a problem solver, a change agent, as having the right priorities or as effective, voters were also likely to see that candidate as good on the economy and were likely to vote for them.
Campaign teams for women candidates found a silver lining in the economic downturn: fairness. In tight financial times, voters believed that a woman would be more fair in managing scarce resources.
Negative charges that contain an element of moral laxity were the favorite against women after fiscal incompetence. Being too lenient on sexual predators was the alternative charge of choice in two of the four races. An additional accusation of being a deal maker and getting a pay-off also carried that moral dimension.
Consultants noted that older white women and non-college educated women were important voter targets for women candidates. They viewed older women voters as likely to vote for women candidates and younger women voters as not as reliable.
Inexperienced staff presumed that women voters generally leaned toward the woman candidate despite polling evidence to the contrary.
More often, male candidates spoke directly to camera in most of their TV ads, while female candidates shared the focus with others in their ads.
Independent expenditure ads used women surrogates to attack women candidates and male candidates defended and counter attacked using women in their ads.
Press and TV Coverage
One of the most pronounced differences in the campaign landscape in 2008 was the changing nature of the press. Once a clearly defined institution, the press is now multi-headed and in transition. Consultants observed that print press is cash-starved and contracting, making it less read and less persuasive. TV news, while also resource poor, hustles to compete with online outlets. And online media are re-orienting the public to receive information in new ways. The effect on women’s campaigns appears to be a positive one.
Some consultants believe that broadcast better reflects the messages the candidates want to reach voters (i.e. there is less filtering of the message). This is also true for those who aggressively use the Internet well.
Campaign teams showed outright hostility toward some reporters as “incompetent,” “lazy,” “not doing their jobs.” Candidates complained of the press’ inability to stay with a story for more than a day.
For women candidates, these changes in media coverage meant fielding a more aggressive press operation and going up against “pack” preconceptions.
In states with few large metro media markets Capitol press set the tone for coverage of the Governor’s office. Several consultants cited the propensity of the Capitol press to write stories that would create a horse race or said that they displayed a bias toward or against making a change. Several campaigns noted that a Capitol press corps becomes part of the political establishment and is, therefore, less likely to hold a sitting Governor accountable, especially if they judge the challenger as unlikely to succeed. Campaign teams believed these same reporters are more likely to question the underdog woman candidate closely and critique her plans more particularly.
TV news reporters appeared to be gender balanced, and stations were fair about measuring equal time, but women reporters appeared to show greater energy and excitement when reporting on a woman candidate.
Participants on weekly political talk shows were overwhelmingly male. Local political science experts who often appear as analysts when polls are announced or to comment on newsworthy developments are almost always male.
Successful women candidates appeared on TV in motion with other people, often greeting them or touching; losers were often alone and standing still. Successful women candidates and their teams were prepared for predictable press opportunities:
- Campaign Announcement/Kick-off
- Third Party Polls
- Issue Position
- Ad Watch/Truth Box
- High Profile Endorsements/Visitors
- Filing a Lawsuit/Official Complaint
- Filing Financial Reports
Voters believed that the media treated women candidates fairly. In a surprising turn, losing women candidates were more likely to believe they got fair press coverage than the winners.
A result of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was that less money may have been available for gubernatorial candidates among women donors, suggesting that the universe of national women donors could be vastly expanded.
No campaign believed it had fully mined the Internet for donors, or even that they fully understood its capacity/potential as a fundraising tool for women.
In a tough economic environment, both labor and business opinion leaders appeared to hold women challengers to a higher standard on their knowledge of finance and ability to handle the budget. This appeared to affect their giving.
1Multivariate analysis identifies which messages and motivations drive or predict a vote. We often find in a survey that messages receiving the most positive responses (e.g., the highest percentage of respondents saying a message is “convincing”) are not the messages that actually move people to act. Regression analysis can pinpoint the various outreach strategies or specific media of message delivery that best predict likelihood to vote.