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.
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.
THE LIKEABILITY LITMUS TEST
Likeability is a non-negotiable quality voters 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. However, demonstrating likeability is not a one-size-fits all proposition. 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 matter.
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, and women’s health. However, voters are split on who handles the economy better—men or women.
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.
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. 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.
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 contrasts ads to win.