A QUALIFIED WOMAN
We so often hear voters hedge that they’ll vote for a “qualified” woman. In focus groups, voters explained that some people only want to vote for “qualified” women because a perception remains that women have to work harder and do more to achieve the same goals as men. Women have to prove they are qualified. For men, their qualification is assumed. In other words, women have to prove themselves from day one.
The most important traits to convey that a woman is qualified include being honest, standing up for what is right, being knowledgeable, getting results, being confident, being organized, having a vision, and being in touch.
To help a woman appear most qualified, it works to show she: brings Democrats and Republicans together to get things done; “stands up” in a debate; starts the campaign with a listening tour; pulls herself up by her bootstraps; answers tough questions from a reporter; and issues an economic plan.
Some of these examples are a matter of changing the words women use to convey women’s strengths as leaders. For instance, rather than illustrating how a woman candidate has worked across the aisle, it is more effective to show how a candidate brought men and women or Democrats and Republicans together to get results.
Using action-oriented language also helps convey that a woman candidate is qualified. Women must show they take action. Consider action phrases, such as: started a successful business, refused to back down, answered tough questions, and led an initiative.
THE LIKEABILITY LITMUS TEST
Likeability is a non-negotiable quality voter seek in women officeholders and candidates. Men don’t need to be liked to be elected. Voters are less likely to vote for a woman candidate they do not like. Women face the double bind of needing to show competence and likeability.
Voters acknowledge that a woman’s style and appearance are highly scrutinized and connected to her likeability. In a recent study, voters reacted to every aspect of a woman’s presentation style, including her appearance, demeanor, and tone of voice. They volunteer that people are still more judgmental about a woman’s appearance than a man’s. Focus group participants say that if they were giving advice to a woman candidate, they would make sure her wardrobe, makeup, and appearance are impeccable.
Appearing confident is essential. In this study, voters assessed a woman officeholder’s confidence in less than 30 seconds. Confidence signals both likeability and qualifications. However, demonstrating likeability is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. All candidates must stay true to who they are. Just as each woman running for office is unique, so is the combination of factors that contribute to her likeability.
Voters, independent of their gender, overwhelmingly say it is important that they like an officeholder they support: 84% of men and 90% of women. There are two key components to making women candidates likeable in the eyes of voters: presentation and track record. In other words, style and substance both matters.
Previous research on women officeholders and candidates showed that many of the attributes and qualities that establish qualifications also improve likeability for women. The two were linked—they rose and fell together. More recent findings show a shift in that conventional wisdom. Some of the factors that help establish likeability do not reinforce qualifications.
Another evolutionary change for women officeholders and candidates is an expansion of how they can relate to voters. Women shown in less formal, relaxed settings have more power than they used to. For example, photos of women elected officials seated by themselves behind mahogany desks—the traditional hallmark of executive leadership —are considered the least likeable. Voters respond positively to women meeting with people and engaging in conversation. In other words, doing the day-to-day work of an elected official.
When speaking with voters, women candidates can demonstrate likeability by showcasing their: preparation, confidence, listening skills, and sense of humor.
When preparing campaign materials, think about: highlighting how the candidate has overcome an obstacle; connecting policies to personal elements; mixing team and solo credit when talking about accomplishments; offering a solution and acknowledging that others may not agree; and including photos of the candidate in informal settings in the community.
Voters want to know that a woman can handle budgets, taxes, and the economy. This area is generally perceived as a weakness for women candidates and not a traditional area of female expertise. Women candidates have advantages on issues that are traditionally “women’s issues”: education, healthcare, women’s health, and fighting sexual harassment. However, voters are split on who handles the economy better—men or women. In addition, decisiveness and effectiveness are areas where women candidates still need to prove themselves.
A candidate profile that focuses on experience, including voting record and accomplishments on important issues, is the most effective in portraying qualifications to voters, followed by a profile that outlines a candidate’s general previous experience in office. These profiles beat out a competing profile that focused on personal biography. This is proof positive of how critical it is to tout experience first and personal story second.
Voters are adamant that a woman elected official would be more likely to protect women’s health issues, access to birth control and contraception, reproductive health issues, Social Security and Medicare, and education. Voters across parties look more favorably upon women candidates who take a strong stance against sexual harassment. Women can and should use the clear, ongoing advantage they hold on these “women’s issues” but must also maximize non-traditional experience to demonstrate their qualifications.
When it comes to less traditional experience—economic development, serving on a finance committee or economic task force—highlighting accomplishments helps women candidates unlock doors to the executive office and level the playing field by establishing credibility as a leader. In a split sample, the fictional Mary Jones’ profile that includes non-traditional experience did just as well as an identical profile about a fictional man.
Certain qualities are particularly important. Voters were likely to see a candidate as good on the economy and were likely to vote for her if they perceived her: to be a problem solver, to be a change agent, as having the right priorities, and as effective.
Women also now get as much credit as men for being good on the economy when they are good on other issues. For both men and women candidates, being good on education and healthcare help them to be seen as good on the economy. Women can harness the advantage they have on these typically “women’s issues” as well as kitchen-table economics, to connect with voters.
CONTRASTING WITH OPPONENTS
Barbara Lee Family Foundation research has consistently shown that women candidates pay a higher price for contrasting, i.e. “going negative” even though all candidates must show how they differ from their opponents—it is a necessary part of campaigning. Some women voters say they are disappointed when they see a woman “go negative” because they hold women candidates to a higher standard. Voters expect more from women candidates and they feel that by engaging in negative campaigning, a woman is reduced to the status of a typical politician.
They feel women should use their strengths of compassion and being relatable to overcome negativity. “I expect more from a woman [candidate] than I do a man,” as one woman said in a focus group, “because it used to be a man’s world and they always bashed, and I think a woman can have more tactfulness to not stoop to a man’s level.” Some women, especially women of color, worry about whether women can maintain their “femininity” and “compassion.” As one woman noted, “I just wanted to comment on the ads from the female politicians; to me they seemed a little masculine. They didn’t look soft or feminine.”
Voters typically see women as more honest and ethical than men. It is important for women to maintain that advantage, even when contrasting with their opponents.
It has long been believed that women candidates “going negative” in ads during a campaign works, but also increases their own negative ratings. There are key strategies women candidates can use that are more likely to resonate with voters. Each campaign has unique circumstances. One common thread, however, is that women candidates can and do need to use contrast ads to win.
Some of the tactics for contrasting with an opponent are not reserved for women only. However, voters remember negative ads from women candidates more than negatives from male candidates, all other things being equal.
PUTTING SEXISM IN ITS PLACE
Despite recent advances for women in politics, candidates for office still face sexism on the campaign trail.
Sexist treatment can take many forms—from double standards for women candidates to undue criticisms of their appearance, voice, or clothing—and a woman may only have a few moments to decide whether to respond, and how to do it.
As media outlets are increasingly attuned to gender dynamics in politics, a sexist incident also can potentially become a defining moment in a woman’s campaign.
Our new Barbara Lee Family Foundation research shows that the conventional wisdom of remaining silent is not an effective response to a sexist comment made to a candidate. Voters see how a woman handles sexism as a leadership test she can pass. Voters support a woman in speaking out about sexism if it aligns with her core values to do so. They prefer a calm, confident, and professional response that reflects the values of equality, fairness, and what is best for all women and girls.
A woman candidate’s response to sexism can demonstrate her leadership and her electability to voters.