Speaking with Authority (2001)

National Security

Voter Gender Biases: What Are Voters Thinking?

In the current environment, male and female voters have the same agenda. Jobs and the economy, terrorism and national security are the dominant issues.

On the issues of terrorism and military response, both men and women voters listen for male voices. However, female candidates are persuasive when they talk about safety, preparedness and keeping voters informed.
Furthermore, female candidates benefit from talking about national security both as a domestic issue and as an international issue. Both male and female voters want to get back to a domestic agenda – good news for women, who are stronger on such issues as education and health care.

Which “National Security Issues” Give Women Candidates the Greatest Credibility?”

National Security Messages That Work

We tested more than 20 messages on national security to under stand what works best for women.

The three key “messages” from female candidates that are the most believable and convincing to voters revolve around public health, infrastructure and overall homeland security:

  • “Since September 11, public health and infrastructure throughout the country must be higher priorities. We need to adequately fund the upgrading of state and local health departments, improve lab security and stockpile antibiotics. We also need to create specialized military and law enforcement teams to respond to bioterrorism attacks and to keep the public informed.”(85% of women and 74% of men found this somewhat or very believable coming from a female candidate; 83% of women and 75% of men found this to be somewhat or very convincing coming from a female candidate.)
  • “Homeland security is a primary responsibility of our national government. Better intelligence, cooperation, sharing of information and increased monitoring are all required. Currently federal responsibility for terrorism is divided among more than 40 offices, which spend more than $11 billion a year. We need to enforce accountability and ensure that we are prepared to meet new threats to our security.” (84% of women and 72% of men found this somewhat or very believable coming from a female candidate; 80% of women and 75% of men found this to be somewhat or very convincing coming from a female candidate.)
  • “Many of us have heard about domestic defenses that are not up to par. Public health agencies say they need to identify biological threats and treat those affected should those threats materialize. The FBI is stretched thin and needs more officers to stop terrorists before they strike. We need more food inspectors. We need proper equipment to protect our mail. Finally, we need more Coast Guard cutters patrolling our shores, and inspection agents should be stationed around the clock at every border point.”(80% of women and 75% of men found this somewhat or very believable coming from a female candidate; 77% of women and 74% of men found this to be somewhat or very convincing coming from a female candidate.)

The Best Language for Women Candidates Speaking on Security

Our data reveals that across issue areas, women close the voter “confidence gap” with male candidates by developing messages about cooperation and safety, public health and preparedness. For all of the suggested messages, your language should be inclusive, specific and have a local plan and/or examples.

National Security Language That is Least Effective for Female Candidates

The national security issues on which voters find women most persuasive – providing humanitarian aid and food to poor countries, and building democracy and economic opportunities abroad – are also the lowest priorities for voters. Voters view men as strongest on increasing military spending for conflicts abroad and creating a missile defense shield, but these are also not among voters’ top priorities.

Therefore, female candidates should not lead with humanitarian messages and understand they have less credibility on messages that focus on military “toughness” than they have on cooperation and consensus.
The research also reveals that specific language that focuses on military defense, terrorism, toughness and decisiveness puts women at a disadvantage. Few voters believe women on these topics. Candidates should therefore avoid “hawkish” language such as:

  • “We need to go after the terrorists themselves and defeat them any way possible.”
  • “We should do whatever it takes, even if it means going into Iran or Iraq to hunt down terrorists.”

A focus on solutions, the impact on people at home and a “consensus-building” leadership style are most convincing and believable to voters.

For Candidates

    Specific language and phrases that resonate with voters:

  1. Cooperation and Communication
    1. “We need to develop consensus on a strategic plan that will keep us safe.”
    2. “We have to think of national security both here and abroad.”
    3. “All members of the intelligence community must work together and act collectively to strengthen our security.”
    4. “We need to increase security at airports, government sites, power plants and other terrorist targets.”
  2. Public Health Urgency / Emergency
    1. “We need to create specialized teams to respond to bioterrorism attacks and to keep the public informed.”
    2. “Public health infrastructure throughout the country must be a higher priority. We need to upgrade state and local health departments and stockpile antibiotics.”
    3. “We need more food inspectors; we need proper equipment to protect our mail.”
    4. “We need to ensure that security agencies like the FBI and the Coast Guard have the resources they need to stop terrorists before they strike.”
  3. Preparedness: Are We Ready?
    1. “Part of our long-term national security must include taking specific precautions to defend potential terrorist targets.”
    2. “We need to increase preparedness for bioterrorism and increase security around potential biological attacks.”
    3. “We need to adequately fund state and local governments so they are prepared for potential emergencies, even evacuations.”