Turning Point: The Changing Landscape for Women Candidates (2010)

Issue spotlight

Mastering the economy

The most important issue to master for both men and women

The single biggest issue on the minds of voters in 2010 was the economy, and credibility on this topic was the most important challenge for men and women candidates in this election.

Typical of the 2010 election overall, voter perceptions of a candidates’ effectiveness on the economy were tied more to party than to gender.

In 2010, economic issues such as making it easier to start and run a business, jobs and the economy, taxes, and creating a favorable small business climate, were difficult issues for men and women Democrats alike. Still, women candidates overall made progress on two important fronts.

For Candidates

  1. Share your budget priorities. A budget is a statement of your values. It is a proactive document that tells voters what you want to accomplish. Show where you would save and where you would invest and why. Remember that voters accord women the benefit of “kitchen table budgeting” wisdom and experience.
  2. Establish financial credentials. If you have served as a treasurer, budget director or on a finance committee in the public or private sector, trumpet it. If you haven’t had a high profile financial position, look for other and unconventional ways you have managed a state’s or business’s money.
  3. Learn your state budget. Former or current Budget or Appropriation Committee chairs, staff or budget analysts from the Governor’s office are all useful resources for learning the intricacies of the state budget.

Increased credibility for women candidates on the economy

Women candidates in 2010 increased their credibility on economic issues. Over time, women have become more competitive on the economy. Now, women and men are rated equally on economic competence. As one communications consultant said,“[voters] were looking for just a little bit of truth. These are bad times. Just level with me, as a family sits around the table. Mom looks at her kids and says you know, we’re all going to have to pitch in here and get through this and we’re all going to have to sacrifice. And that being delivered from a woman resonated in this down economic time.”

For Democratic women, talking about public sector economic experience, like chairing a budget committee in the legislature or leading a state competitiveness initiative, predicted to credibility on the economy among voters across party lines. For Republican women, issuing a written plan and airing ads on the economy established credibility with voters.

Overall, the most important ways for candidates to show economic expertise were issuing an economic plan and talking about experience dealing with the economy as a public official.As one focus group participant offered,“everybody says that they are going to do this for education and they are going to do that for small business, what are you going to do? Give me specifics.” Talking about private sector experience was a predictor of credibility on the economy for Republican men and Republican women who ran against Democratic women, but it was not a predictor of credibility for the Republican women who ran against Democratic men.

For Candidates

  1. Weave your budget expertise into every issue, ad, and communication. Give everyone who introduces you a prepared introduction that emphasizes your financial credentials and accomplishments. Check your strategic plan for an integrated focus on jobs, budget, and economy.
  2. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Offer specifics on the ways your state will compete for jobs. Your economic plan should include attracting and keeping large businesses and making it easier to start and run a small business. Look for opportunities to serve on boards or commissions related to job growth.

In contrast to voter survey results, a number of campaign managers and consultants reported that releasing plans and integrating economic messages into paid media did not distinguish their candidate from her opponent. These experts did not believe that their candidate’s economic messages persuaded voters. They identified partisanship, national health care reform, or character as driving voters’ decisions. As one media consultant noted,“…we had a national environment getting forced onto the campaign [for example]…the healthcare plan’s supposed inhibiting of job creation. We were fighting a real uphill battle in terms of the larger environment.”

Equal credit for being good on the economy

The second positive development for women candidates and the economy is that they now get equal credit for being good on the economy when they are good on other issues.

In 2008, if voters perceived a male candidate to be good on health care and education,they presumed he was also good on the economy. A woman candidate who voters viewed as good on health care and education was not similarly presumed to be good on the economy; she had to prove that competence in some other way. This changed in 2010. For both men and women candidates, being good on education and health care help them to be seen as good on the economy. However, these two issues alone don’t automatically mean that voters perceive men or women candidates as being good on the economy overall.

The single biggest issue on the minds of voters in 2010 was the economy, and credibility on this topic was the most important challenge for men and women candidates in this election.

Beyond the issue of the economy, voters gave women candidates of both parties the overall advantage on immigration and health care.1 The other biggest issue advantages differed for Republican and Democratic women. Democratic women who faced Republican men held an edge on education and ethics and corruption; while Republican women’s greatest advantage was making it easier to start and run a small business and creating a favorable business climate.

While the economy is consistently high on the list of voters’ concerns, education is emerging as an important issue for 2012. It has the potential to be a major asset for women candidates since voters often presume that women, especially Democrats, are good on education.

{chart no. 6} Democrats hold an advantage on education and health care across the types of states. Democratic women who faced Republican male opponents enjoyed the largest leads, especially on education and ethics. The one issue that showed the greatest gender effect was immigration, where both Democratic and Republican women were ahead. Republican women also neutralized somewhat the Democratic advantage on health care.

The charts on candidate trait and issue advantages are calculated as the difference between the vote margin and trait advantage margin. For example, if the vote margin is +10 points Democratic, then a trait margin of +15 points Democratic results in an overall net Democratic advantage of 5 points. A trait margin of +3 points Democratic results in a net Democratic advantage of -7 points.

{chart no. 7} Economic issues — such as making it easier to start and run a business, jobs and the economy, taxes, and creating a favorable business climate — are problematic issues for Democrats, both male and female, though no greater for Democratic women. Republican women really accentuated the Democratic disadvantage on starting and running a business.

The charts on candidate trait and issue advantages are calculated as the difference between the vote margin and trait advantage margin. For example, if the vote margin is +10 points Democratic, then a trait margin of +15 points Democratic results in an overall net Democratic advantage of 5 points. A trait margin of +3 points Democratic results in a net Democratic advantage of -7 points.

1The advantage on health care was driven by Democratic women. Republican women were actually at a 5-point disadvantage on this issue.