Voters view women incumbents as less tough than male incumbents. Voter concern about a woman candidate’s toughness suppresses confidence in her on issues like crime and security and undercuts a woman’s authority on critical issues like the economy and “competing for jobs.”
Voters presume that a woman will be good on issues such as the environment, health and education. To prove themselves on the issues where voters have doubts, successful women candidates did their homework and demonstrated their mastery of the subjects by talking specifics.
Also, women governors appear to be expanding the definition of “good governor” to include empathetic and ethical qualities. That benefit to women candidates is a consideration in selecting issues on which to run.
Some Issues are Fraught with Danger
Voters believe women are weaker on those issues historically related to toughness – crime, jobs and the economy, security – and stronger on issues that correlate with empathy, such as education and healthcare.
Male candidates often exploit these stereotypes to define opponents as not ready to serve or not a complete package. Non-incumbents and one incumbent woman candidate were attacked on taxes, their ability to attract jobs and/or to manage the economy.
As one consultant said, “Taxes became a kind of defining issue because of our opponent bringing it up that way.”
In Nevada, the male opponent referred to Dina Titus as “Dina Taxes” right out of the primary, engaged her in a four-week tax debate to keep the issue in front of voters and used it in his television commercials. In Alaska, Tony Knowles suggested in debates that the complexity and economics of the oil pipeline were beyond Sarah Palin’s experience.
It is easier for incumbent governors to sidestep this pitfall because they’ve had a chance to establish credibility on their money management skills. In Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius touted her many small savings as a symbol of her care with bigger expenditures and excellent record on streamlining government. Her TV commercials conveyed a careful, frugal style that evoked a family saving for college, yet the scope of the savings and efficiencies she championed showed Wall Street savvy.
“Our paid media was a lot about her success in cutting the budget, in getting us out of a billion dollar deficit, in streamlining government, in pushing the legislature to deal with education,” said one advisor.
Some Issues are Gifts Only Women Get
On the plus side, voters are clear that women seem more honest – a potentially significant advantage in a climate of corruption. Voters also believe that female candidates’ empathy gives them the edge on issues like education, health and the environment.
Yet despite these positive preconceptions, the presumption of honesty can only carry a candidacy so far. Women who ran in states where corruption was a major topic did not fare better in their general elections than those in states without corruption concerns. Some won, some lost.
It is worth noting that Jodi Rell of Connecticut, who ran on ethics and education, and who, as Lt. Governor, succeeded her governor following his indictment, was overwhelmingly re-elected. Sarah Palin of Alaska, who first came to statewide attention by challenging the propriety of her own party’s representatives on Alaska’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, was a surprise primary and general election winner.
Yet in Alabama and Illinois – where rumors of investigations floated around during the primary and general elections – neither female challenger came close to victory.
Standing up for education, the environment and healthcare highlight a woman candidate’s empathy but may not add to her overall appeal. After all, voters expect her to be good on these issues.
One surprising set of comments focused on endorsements and the issue of reproductive choice. Almost all those interviewed confirmed that the issue no longer packs the ballot box punch that it once did for women candidates.
Republican women candidates also reported that they believed pro- choice groups were indeed partisan, giving preference to male or female Democratic candidates. These Republican women do not believe the groups fairly considered their pro-choice voting records or activism when making their endorsements.
As one candidate said, “At some point, partisanship trumps gender.” The candidate cautioned that being a woman with a record of “pro- choice” support is no guarantee you’ll get a seal of approval from pro- choice groups.
Another non-incumbent reported that anything short of a 100 percent, pro-choice voting record – she had supported parental notification – was an instant green light for the women’s groups to support the Democrat, even if the Democrat was a man.
- Up-End The Stereotype. No woman should expect to become governor without demonstrating her money management skills. Leadership on a Budget or Appropriations Committee, crafting a solution for a local government financial crisis or designing a new funding mechanism are all opportunities to make this point.
Beware The Tax And Fee Votes. Women who serve in legislatures must be mindful that tax and fee votes are political attacks in waiting. While they may be responsible public policy, voting to raise a fee or increase a tax means you must develop a set of votes or policies that counter the notion that you are a “tax and spender.”
- Annual Award For Best Cost Saving Idea. Show your concern for careful use of taxpayer dollars by recognizing people who find ways to save the state money.
- Don’t Polish Your Halo Yet. Despite the presumption voters make that women are more ethical than men, it’s a long way down off that pedestal. More and more frequently, campaigns against a woman begin with an assault on her integrity that is designed to eliminate her virtue advantage. Be forthright if the public believes you have made a mistake and respond quickly.
- The Warrior Princess Is A Warrior. In order to be an education warrior or an environmental champion, you must win a debate, a vote or a fight. Activists are looking for leaders. Pick a worthy opponent so the victory is meaningful, visible and defines you as strong.