ELEMENTS OF STYLE
A woman’s appearance is under a microscope — or perhaps more appropriately, in the headlines — far more often than her male counterparts’. No surprise there. Voters draw complex conclusions about women candidates from their appearances, according to interviews with campaign staff. One finance director reported, “I think she’s so well dressed and so well put together that to some people, that didn’t appeal to them. She was almost ‘perfect.’”
We’ve heard it all: Voters and media alike comment on women candidates’ clothes, lipstick, hairstyles. As one campaign manager put it, “The news would say ‘the candidate appeared before the media in her trademark shapeless skirts’…they would never say ‘our male opponent appeared in his scruffy wingtips and rumpled shirt.’”
What may be surprising, however, are some straightforward ways candidates have minimized the scrutiny.
- Winning candidates develop a look and style that is authentic and appropriate.
- Women’s power-dressing has evolved past feminized men’s suits to more colorful jackets over sheath dresses and pants. This change reflects the evolution of work wear in general but is particularly applicable to politics.
- Voters want to see women candidates look neat and put together. Make sure your clothes aren’t wrinkled, and touch up your hair and makeup before a public event or official photo.
- As the saying goes, “Dress poorly and they remember the dress. Dress well and they remember the woman.” Keep it simple and cultivate a collection of go-to outfits that convey power and are also practical.
Traditionally, women are praised for being more cooperative and bipartisan. While voters still give women credit for these traits, they are cynical about the state of politics, unclear whether more women in office will have a measurable impact, and question any individual’s ability to change politics.
Women candidates can maximize their advantages by using the right words and displaying the right actions. Both Democratic and Republican women have an advantage over a male candidate on representing voters’ interests, having the right priorities, being honest and ethical, solving problems, working across party lines to get results, and being warm and likeable.
It remains important for a woman to take on insiders and to stand up for her constituents. Current women elected officials are seen as successfully challenging their legislatures. Figuring out how to deliver a simple, effective message is complicated and requires practice, and women candidates must consistently communicate better than their male opponents on many fronts.
- Women need to prove: strength, qualification, and ability to make change.
- Ways women can demonstrate qualifications: having the right priorities, showing strong negotiating skills, and working with men and women.
- Advantages women have: in touch, compassionate, right priorities, honest, and problem-solving.
THE ETHICAL PEDESTAL: HONESTY & CHARACTER
Voters historically have accorded women candidates a “virtue advantage,” seeing them as more honest and ethical than men. That perception remains, especially among Independent voters, though by a smaller margin and with significant partisan differences.
This is particularly important because voters who see women as offering unique traits like honesty are more likely to support a woman candidate.
The advantage that voters accord women on honesty can be dramatically reversed if they perceive that a woman candidate has been dishonest or acted unethically. A woman candidate who is accused of dishonesty or acting unethically pays a high price in the loss of voter esteem, especially among women voters who expect a woman to be different.
And because the cost of an ethical infraction is higher for a woman, campaigns against women candidates often use the well-worn strategy of launching negative attacks on character or values early in the campaign.
Women candidates’ place on the ethical pedestal is a worthwhile asset. Women can maintain that advantage by showcasing integrity, transparency, and consistency.
HANDLING A CRISIS
The ability to handle a crisis has consistently been a key component of a woman candidate demonstrating her qualifications for office. In previous Barbara Lee Family Foundation research, voters rated “can handle a crisis” as a top trait that contributes to a woman’s electability.
Although there are many types of crises, from mass shootings, to hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and pandemics, voters have concrete ideas about what makes a woman leader successful at handling a crisis. Voters want a problem solver who is creative, realistic, strong, and decisive — someone who listens and projects calmness and confidence. Voters also want a candidate who takes a 360-degree view about what needs to happen before, during, and after the crisis. It is important to voters that women leaders have a plan — not just for the current moment, but for what is coming next.
Our research found that “being a good communicator” was the most important trait for women leaders during a crisis. For voters, communicating is not only about conveying information but also about listening to and learning from experts, stakeholders, and those impacted.
RESILIENCE FOLLOWING MISTAKES
No one can run a perfect campaign. However, women do not have much room to make mistakes. Voters remember and punish women more for mistakes, which undermine their qualifications.
Women are often perceived as letting mistakes linger for too long. This is devastating to both their likeability and their qualifications.
When women do slip up, they need to work immediately with their campaigns to engage in crisis communications.
One rebound strategy is clear: Respond quickly with a succinct, straight answer and then introduce third-party validators who can reinforce the candidate’s qualifications. This strategy worked for women candidates and did not work for men candidates.
NAVIGATING THE LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR ROLE
Lieutenant governorships across the country are closer to gender parity than most other elected offices, and this position has historically been a stepping stone to governor for women leaders.
As integral and influential as lieutenant governors can be, voters in our recent research said that they do not have much awareness about what this position entails or what roles a lt. governor plays. Voters also said that they prefer to see a lt. governor establish her own niche separate from the governor, and that they want to see a woman lt. governor solve problems.
The fact that voters do not have strong opinions about lieutenant governors creates an opportunity for women in this role. LGs have an opportunity to define the role and tell the story of their accomplishments to the public.
Voters also said that they believe a woman lieutenant governor who is running for governor is qualified based on her tangible accomplishments and track record.
RELAUNCHING AFTER A LOSS
In the winner-take-all voting system in the U.S., there can only be one winner. As one focus group participant put it: “There is always going to be a loser.” Clichés abound about the importance of learning and moving forward after failure, but often that’s easier said than done, particularly after an electoral loss.
Historically, women candidates have faced questions about their qualifications and likeability in the campaign post-mortem period. Because voters remember and penalize women’s mistakes on the campaign trail, women candidates may feel that running again after losing a campaign is not a viable path forward. However, voters are incredibly open to the idea of a woman relaunching herself as a public figure and running again after a loss.
A woman can start her next campaign as soon as her concession speech or statement. It’s important to be forward-thinking— don’t dwell on the past. Voters are sensitive to any perceived whining or blaming.
The messaging should focus on the voters, not the candidate. It’s important for a woman candidate to be values-oriented and grounded in the needs of her constituency. Voters respond when women who have lost elections focus on listening to the community, continuing to fight for their ideals, and getting things done for the community.
After losing an election, a woman candidate has a wide range of options for her next steps. However, voters demonstrate clear preferences for specific things a woman candidate can do after losing that they believe would make her qualified to run for office again. Voters want to see a losing candidate who is a community-focused, issues-oriented public servant. Find ways to stay engaged in the community, and take time to work on an issue that was big in the campaign, build political skills, and network with other leaders.
For more information head to the full Essential Guide or our Relaunch: Resilience and Rebuilding for Women Candidates After an Electoral Loss research.
RUNNING FOR REELECTION
Even with an increased number of women serving as governor, when voters think of a governor, they automatically picture a man.
Another challenge is that when a woman serves as governor, voters do not assume she is doing a good job, nor do they take her word for it. However, voters do recognize that women, especially women of color, serving in executive office are held to a higher standard than their male counterparts.
To effectively communicate her record with voters, a woman incumbent must proactively lay out what she has accomplished while in office. Voters prefer for her to use specific examples and benchmarks to show how she has helped communities, and how she has gotten results as an executive leader.
When an opponent attacks a woman’s record, voters look for her to defend her actions decisively. Beyond addressing the issues in question, voters want to see a woman who is running for reelection handle criticism with strength and composure.