Positioning Women to Win (2006)

Lesson 3: Seize the "Populist" Presumption Independent Reformer

Words like “bipartisan,” “independent” and “strong” came up often when interviewees spoke about incumbent women governors.

According to several campaign pollsters, voters also perceived women incumbents as “outsiders” or “agents of change” and they identified their own woman governor as someone who was fighting for them. Voters perceived today’s women governors as being more populist than women governors in the past. Voters see these governors “on their side” and “fighting for them.”

“You can lead and be incredibly successful by working together and working for the common good and I think that’s why women leaders are winning,” noted one campaign manager.

That was a major theme in Jodi Rell’s effort to get Connecticut moving again after a series of scandals at the statehouse. Rell consistently emphasized doing what was honorable and right so that the people could have confidence in their government again.

Speaking about another incumbent, a media consultant suggested that the populist image emanates from putting people first. “What voters perceive about her character is that she’s strong, that she’s steady and that she’s independent and that she’s really a capable CEO of the state who seems to put the best interest of the people rather than her party first.”

Another media consultant praised the value of being able to show people a governor who was working for them: “She was definitely a reformer… She had a brand image and people knew her as a reformer and somebody that had a plan for change and had implemented that plan in the first four years.”

Open seat and challenger campaigns sought to create an image of the crusading reformer fighting for the “little guy.” “Ultimately the strategy was to try to contrast her with her opponent and to try and make her a populist,” recalled a media consultant for one unsuccessful challenger.

Slay a Dragon, Solve a Problem, Start a Movement

As the non-incumbent candidates discovered, the making of a “populist” may be easier said than done, but circumstances can help as they did in Alaska. There, Sarah Palin beat an incumbent governor against a backdrop of corruption charges.

In fact, each of the incumbent governors had demonstrated that she could manage in a crisis, bring a runaway corporate interest to heel, set forth a plan of solutions for the state and execute her vision. Some led the charge as lower level office holders, others while in the governor’s office, but all defined their political leadership by fighting for people and putting them above other interests.

When asked about the challenge of re-electing an incumbent, a senior consultant reiterated this theme: “It was basically highlighting that she fought for everyday people while our opponent fought for big stream, special powerful interests.” Successful governors embody the independence and candor that voters crave in their leaders and demonstrate their commitment to the common good both by what they do and how they do it.

Governor Linda Lingle managed earthquake recovery during her re- election campaign, working with leaders of both parties to get Hawaiians what they needed. People watched her mobilize state resources and personally assist those in need. She became the “source” for where to go and what to do.

“Work hard, dedicate yourself to the people; it’s what’s good for all the people…not just your Party. It’s the people first, the Party second,” a consultant observed.
Successful incumbents found ways to demonstrate their “people first” philosophy to voters and the specific difference that made for them.

For Candidates

  1. Know Your Priorities. What is your reason for running? Is it clear in the way you spend your time? Work with others? In your speeches? Media? Voters can’t see that you are on their side unless you show them, tell them and do it again.
  2. Frame Your Issues. What are you for? Who do you stand with? What are you against? Draw lines and be clear what side you’re on.
  3. Offer Specific Solutions. “On your side,” “fighting for you,” “working for the common good,” “working to get folks a fair shake” – our political history rings with populist language. As worn as it may seem, it resonates with voters and tells them what they need to know about you. But don’t expect populist rhetoric to do all your work for you; make sure voters know you have a detailed plan.
  4. Be Present With A Solution. No picture is more powerful than the one of you at the fire base camp, the relief center or the emergency room. It’s difficult for people to understand what you really care about unless they see your caring in action and hear your solution.
  5. Practice Democracy On The Web. Photo galleries and campaign schedules on websites provide an opportunity to illustrate your “people first” campaign. Walk your talk. Occasional question- and-answer sessions online, weekly notes on current affairs, links to field activities and events are all proven tools for engaging voters. Encourage supporters to tout your candidacy on the Internet.