Positioning Women to Win (2006)

Chronic Challenges: Double Standards are Alive and Well

Despite the re-election of all five incumbent women governors, polling data shows there are still a handful of personal traits and qualities on which voters judge women governors differently than they judge male governors.

Interview responses suggest this double standard is even more pronounced for non-incumbent women running for governor. When asked about this lingering double standard, one campaign manager for a successful incumbent agreed, but noted, “Being a strong and popular governor just overrode those [gender] factors this time.”

That’s good news. The presence of more women governors is redefining governors’ roles, giving women more ways to be successful. Voters who have experience with women governors approve of their empathy and ethical conduct, for example, and may look for these qualities in all future governors, regardless of gender.
However, negative stereotypes are likely to stay with us for a while longer. It’s too soon to know whether the current class of women governors are writing new rules of engagement or if they are just exceptions to the old rules. Time will tell.

Personality V. Performance: Women Judged on Both

When considering women governors up for re-election, voters distinguish between their job performance and their likeability. Because of this, voters can like their governor personally, but still not think she’s doing a very good job. Voters tend to meld these qualities when evaluating male governors, making a single positive or negative judgment about them.

A reporter observed this phenomenon and concluded, “I think voters are harder on women, and if they’re going to vote for a woman, it has to be just the right person. They’re less forgiving of them. I guess they pay more attention to personality and character and image when it comes to a female candidate.”

On the other hand, voters give female incumbent governors higher marks than male incumbent governors on a range of positive attributes, particularly for honesty, cooperation and caring. They believe women are more sympathetic to the needs of the middle class and voters consider women governors more trustworthy and more genuine. Male governors are more likely to be seen as too partisan and as typical politicians. (See Table 1)

Women candidates’ double burden of proving themselves on both likeability and performance may have the effect of producing female governors who are more competent and appealing than their male counterparts. A pollster who has worked with both men and women candidates commented, “Women who emerge to run for Congress, senator or governor are generally the highest quality and have a lot to offer, and I think it’s more difficult for them to break through than it is for men. Often times you have good women candidates who are better than good men candidates at that level.”

This observation is borne out by the polling data, which shows that when compared with their male challengers on a range of traits, women incumbent governors hold hefty advantages over male incumbent governors on all of the positive attributes tested, though women governors hold the lowest advantage on toughness. (See Table 2)

Women voters are more likely than men to agree with the positive stereotypes about women governors. Women tend to consider their female governors better consensus builders and better at understanding the adverse impact of job loss on the family pocketbook. Female voters more than male voters believe that women governors “share our concerns” and “will clean up state government.” (See Table 3)

Strength Vs. Toughness: Women Need to Demonstrate Both

Strength and toughness are the hardest traits for women candidates, even incumbents, to convince voters they possess. And to make the challenge even more difficult, voters judge female and male governors somewhat differently on these traits. Voters are more likely to draw a distinction between toughness and strength for women, while male governors are more often viewed as equally strong and tough.

The distinction that voters draw may lie in the difference between the personal and the political. Strength is seen as a function of personal character while toughness is demonstrated through actions in the political arena. Voters may conclude that a candidate is strong by the directness or grace with which she performs under challenging circumstances. Focus and discipline are elements of the mental toughness that superior candidates display – as in the focus to execute a fundraising plan and the discipline necessary to stay on message in the heat of battle. Incumbent women governors have shown that standing up to powerful interests on behalf of their constituents is another successful way to demonstrate toughness.

Both strength and toughness are necessary for success. Neither is sufficient for a woman candidate without the other. Women more than men need to demonstrate both. Higher standards for women governors appear to be producing women governors who excel in the eyes of their voters. So while voters demand more of them, they give them credit.

A media consultant tried to define these nuanced differences this way: “I think the thread that runs through the governors like Napolitano and Sebelius and maybe Granholm… is this sense of independence and just personal strength…showing the public an image of toughness and strength combined with the empathy they probably expect to see in a woman candidate.”

Non-incumbent campaigns uniformly understood the importance of conveying the candidate’s personal strength: “The only part that her gender really played (in the campaign) was we really needed to make sure she looked strong,” noted a communications director. Demonstrating toughness without putting voters off remains one of the most difficult challenges women candidates face.

What makes this particularly tricky is that issues that communicate toughness in male candidates – such as cleaning up corruption – are often viewed through a different lens when applied to female candidates. For instance, a woman’s pledge to end corruption is viewed as a sign of her empathy and honesty, rather than as an indication of toughness.

Older Women Voters Stay Loyal; Younger Women Stray

Despite data showing more enthusiasm from women regarding the positive attributes of women candidates, several campaigns complained that they did not see that enthusiasm translate into greater support from women voters.

In particular, in 2006, non-incumbent campaigns reported that young women voters were tougher on them than older women voters.

Though both older and younger women supported the female incumbents by wide margins, women younger than 50 years old lagged behind women over 50 in their support for women gubernatorial candidates. This contradicts conventional wisdom, but the pattern holds in federal races as well.

In examining exit poll data for a number of states with female gubernatorial candidates, women older than 50 showed at least slightly more support for the female candidate of the major parties. Interestingly, younger women were more supportive of third party women candidates in Texas and Maine. (See Table 4)

Political Party: Powerful Influence on Gender Gap

There are significant gender gaps in several states where women incumbent governors and women challengers ran in 2006: Arizona (women: +35 point margin for female candidate; men: +22 points), Hawaii (+35 to +19), Michigan (+22 to +5) and Nevada (+1 to –10).

However, it is important to note that party identification strongly affected women and men’s likelihood of supporting women candidates. In some instances, partisan impulses negated a gender gap. For instance, men in Illinois and Massachusetts were more supportive than women of their female Republican candidates based on party affiliation. Connecticut men were slightly more supportive of the female Republican incumbent than were women. (See Table 5)

This finding is consistent with earlier research that revealed voters think of a Republican woman as Republican first, woman second. Democratic women candidates are more often seen as a woman first, then as a Democrat.

Independent Voters: A Promising Target for Women Candidates

Looking across the states with women on the ballot, two significant findings emerge. First, women and men alike support female candidates (+10 and +7 respectively). Women in every category are more supportive of women candidates than are male voters. (See Table 6)

Second, Independent voters are a promising target for women candidates. They favored female candidates, regardless of party identification, by double digits. Both Independent women and men are more supportive of the female candidates (+20 and +23 respectively). (See Table 6)

One theory holds that Independent voters view women as agents of change. Independent voters see them as the alternative to the status quo – a status quo firmly in the hands of the major parties these voters abandoned. The good news for women candidates is that Independent voters are the fastest growing segment of voters.

For Candidates

  1. Highlight Accomplishments. Make your productivity and results a central part of your resume. Repeat the ways you have delivered for people every chance you get. Be specific about what you set out to achieve and how you went about doing it. Focus on three signature results you have achieved.
  2. Enlist Third Party Validators. Let voters hear how accomplished you are from many sources. Include a page of laudatory quotes from newspaper editorials in a major donor packet and provide a list of supportive scholars for the media when releasing your economic development plan. Announce endorsements from former governors early.
  3. Write The Introduction You Want. Don’t assume anyone knows you. Provide all introducers with the three achievements you most want people to know about you. Include them in your bio.
  4. Rev Up The “Letters To The Editor” Team. More people read “Letters to the Editor” than any other section of the newspaper. Testimonials about real results from real people carry more weight than any campaign-related material, so encourage the folks you’ve helped to trumpet what you’ve done for them.
  5. Make It Easy For People To Like You. Nothing endears a candidate to an audience like humor or a moment of true kindness. Clear your mind before you enter a room full of people. Feel free to point out the humor in each situation, but be mindful that too often women deflate their authority by using self-deprecating humor. It works for a man, but undercuts a woman candidate’s authority, particularly when voters are still forming an impression of her.