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

Looking ahead

1Woman vs. woman races

A woman running against another woman for Governor was still a novelty in 2010. The woman vs. woman contests in New Mexico and Oklahoma produced interesting data for the future, but also raised more questions.

  • In states with two women on the ballot, the Republican women outperformed the party identification margin.1 In other words, both won more votes than their party holds in voter registration.
  • Voters did not see a big difference in how the media treated a woman of one party vs. her opponent. In New Mexico, voters were split as to which candidate’s coverage was less favorable, and in Oklahoma voters reported slightly more negative coverage of the Democratic candidate.
  • Independent voters in the woman vs. woman states were more likely to believe that women officeholders are a lot different than men. This is important because those who do see women as different are more likely to vote for them.
  • In woman vs. woman races, getting endorsements from experts helped with credibility on the economy for women candidates of either party.
  • In woman vs. woman contests, honesty and ethics, setting the right priorities, knowing what you’re doing, and being strong were predictive of favorability for both Democratic and Republican candidates.

2Questions from candidates

In the course of our 2010 qualitative research, we asked candidates a series of questions to capture and convey their first-hand experience. Questions included,“What would you like the next women running for Governor of your state to know?” and “What research would be helpful to women candidates in the future?”

The candidates’ responses reiterated key findings from our research. Women know that voters punish them for negative ads and attacks.This was particularly true for women running against women. Candidates also dislike negative campaigning and doubt that it works in their favor. Yet they acknowledge the importance of contrasting their views, values and records with those of their opponent.

In addition, women candidates were aware of the diminished gender loyalty from women voters and wanted to understand that dynamic better.

The uncharted territory of woman vs. woman races also led to a number of questions, including:

  • Is it possible to run against another woman in a hotly-contested race and compare and contrast beliefs and records without being perceived as mean-spirited and negative?
  • What is an acceptable competitive posture for candidates in woman vs. woman races in order to avoid stereotypes of “catfights?”
  • Can a woman candidate critique another woman candidate’s record in a way that is acceptable to voters? What would that look like? What are the elements or perimeters of that critical ad? Do tone and messenger matter?
  • Are women voters more critical of women candidates than men voters?
  • If they are, why? What’s the solution? These are just a few of the issues that merit future research.

3A note for campaign teams and consultants

For the first time in our research, we saw campaign teams’ understanding and strategy lag behind voters’ actual beliefs about gender and women candidates. Campaign teams should take note that some women voters are changing their attitudes about women candidates.

Here are some suggestions for future campaigns:

  • Stay current. In your benchmark poll, test voter attitudes on historically challenging traits for women.Almost every advisor and operative we interviewed believed that a woman candidate’s toughness was a high priority to voters, when in fact other qualities have become more important.
  • “Firsts” aren’t persuasive. Don’t waste time or money promoting the historical nature of electing a first woman Governor. Few voters are excited about it anymore.
  • Build on boomers. “Baby Boom” women voters are more likely to vote, more likely to believe that women officeholders are different than men office holders, and more likely to support a woman candidate when they hold that belief.
  • Expect incoming fire on character. Since the Barbara Lee Family Foundation first published evidence that voters give women candidates a “virtue advantage,” opponent campaigns have launched early, vigorous attacks on women candidates’ ethics.While the “virtue advantage” has diminished, the trend to attack women early on character has not.
  • Diversify! Several candidates lamented their inability to find experienced women staff and consultants to join their teams. To solve the problem, campaign managers and consulting firms should put more women operatives on staff and younger women in the campaign manager pipeline.
  • Reach younger women voters closer to the election. Young women engage and decide their vote preferences late in the campaign.Talk to them when they are listening.