Cracking the Code (2002)

Lessons Learned in the Battle of 2002: Lesson 2

Performance Under Pressure: Grace and Grit Win

“They’re asked some questions that they know in advance, but they also get zingers and how they handle it—their body language—that stuff can tell you a lot about a candidate.”
– Focus Group Participant

Debates were a major factor in the outcome of most 2002 gubernatorial races. Voters focus on a female candidate’s performance under pressure, knowledge of the issues and personal presentation. Voters are more judgmental about a female candidate’s performance and less forgiving of her mistakes than they are of her male counterparts’.

Voters ask: Can she stand up to her opponent? Can she think on her feet? Is she overly anxious or nervous when asked a question or confronted with an accusation? Is she tough enough to get the job done?

Voters lose confidence in candidates who display insecurity during critical moments of engagement. For this reason, preparation for debates, forums and press events is particularly important.

Debates: Snapshots of Authenticity

In the 2002 races, debates often were critical to voters’ final decision-making. Voters used debates to learn a candidate’s stand on the issues, but more importantly, voters wanted to gauge a candidate’s quickness, toughness and decisiveness. Repeatedly, focus group participants said they wanted to glimpse the “real” candidate and see how the female candidates “acted under pressure.”

“I want to see them on the floor, and I want questions to be passed on to them, and I want to see how each one of them answers the questions. Then I will make up my mind,” said a focus group participant.

“You want to see how they think on their feet … there is not that much difference on the issues,” added another focus group participant. “You want to see if the people are bright, intelligent. To feel that, under pressure, they can do what’s right.”

Voters get an “unvarnished view” of the candidates during debates, and preparation is essential. A number of female candidates in 2002 did not appreciate the critical nature of debates and their campaigns failed to schedule adequate or well-structured prep time.

“The morning of the debate, I came into my debate prep in a panic,” said a candidate. “When you go into a debate, it’s like you’re dealing with not the front part of your brain, but the stem of your brain. It has to be automatic; you can’t be thinking about things too much and you have to have a plan.”

Voters are more focused on women candidates during debates and more judgmental about their performance. They remember a woman’s mistakes clearly. While male candidates are given the chance to improve over the course of the election, women have to come out of the box ready.

“I know people are caught off guard, but [in the debate] she stood there …that was the first time I really saw true weakness where she didn’t know how to handle herself,” said a focus group participant.

“I should have been worried about how I looked on TV,” said a candidate. “What my manners were like, how I held my hands, how I held my head, how I looked on camera. That is so much more important in a debate.”

Standing up and debating and appearing authoritative can be more challenging for a woman. “In my first debate, I was dwarfed by the podium,” said one woman candidate.

“She comes off in her debates [well], and when she’s on TV, she comes off as she’s not afraid,” noted one focus group participant. “That she’s aggressive and assertive out here and that she’s proud to be a woman for this position.”

“She’s aggressive, she’s strong and she had command of her facts… She won almost every point in the debate, and she got great press for three days because of it,” said a campaign field director.

When a female candidate is prepared and practiced, voters notice. When she isn’t, it’s hard for them to forget.

Directness and Decisiveness Prove You’ve Got What It Takes

Engaging in the back and forth of a campaign enables female candidates to demonstrate the requisite command skills that voters require of a governor. Failure to roll up their sleeves and engage in a debate leaves voters with questions about their ability to be decisive and tough.

“[In] the news clip, she kind of watched this guy who was voicing his opinions right at her,” said a focus group participant. “She kind of had this stupid look on her face about, what do I do now. She didn’t know how to handle it.”

“One of the things that people criticized her for a lot…was she would say, ‘I would study this and I would study that and I would talk to the advisors and the people involved and then we would make a decision.”

Late-deciding women voters, in particular, are waiting for the female candidate to prove herself. To do that, candidates must show decisiveness.

“She just seems very weak and timid,” said a focus group participant. “She always came across to me as dancing around the issues, pointing fingers instead of just saying, ‘this is what I’m going to do’ and be firm and strong about it.”

“We all witnessed how strong the male candidate was, and she didn’t try to really defend herself,” said a focus group participant. “This is how I see her: as a real country girl being a sweet per- son. If she was a first lady, okay, but governor, no.”

Even more than taking a stand on the issues, voters want to see women candidates take on a big opponent – their partys’ legislative leadership, the opposing party or corporations. One of the most successful strategies for proving they can do this is to high- light accomplishments that were a result of taking on a powerful interest and winning.

“She was so tough as Attorney General and basically … she won by such a margin against [her opponent] that it will make her stronger and she’ll be able to go into the legislature and just, you know, clean house,” said a focus group participant.

Voters want to see a candidate who is fearless, yet not overtly aggressive – someone who can make the tough decisions quickly and coolly. Voters look to debates in addition to a candidate’s past performance in office for a sign of how she’ll be as governor.

Winning Candidates Speak for Themselves

In 2002, female candidates faced difficult decisions about how and when to launch their comparative and critical media. Focus group participants repeatedly said they don’t like negative campaigning and they don’t draw a distinction between negative and comparative campaigning. Voters prefer women candidates who are factual and tough, rather than personal and harsh, when they campaign against their opponents.

“I think the thing that actually turned me at the end were some of [the male opponent’s ads with] …all this negative campaign stuff against her,” said a voter. “It was just the kind of way it looked in the ads and that turned me off to the male just because those got really nasty at the end.”

Conventional wisdom dictates that campaigns should attack opponents through third party allies and respond to attacks through a campaign manager or press secretary. In most cases, this removes candidates from the unpleasant “he said, she said” that may be an off-message sideshow.

However, women candidates get credit for directness when they represent themselves. When they opt for a surrogate, they raise questions from voters about whether they’re “hiding.” Voters pick up on this “shield the candidate” tactic, and they don’t like it.

Voters want a female candidate to respond to attacks herself, rather than always through her spokespeople. Going face to face with the press is the best way to earn respect. “I thought her [campaign manager] put himself out there too much. It was almost like, ‘I’m sending this male surrogate to go out and talk for me,’” said one focus group member.

Unsuccessful candidates were less likely to respond in person. “He would respond to the press personally all the time, and she didn’t start doing that more until the end, when she got criticized for not doing it,” said a field director. “She always did it through a spokesperson.”

Responding quickly and not leaving attacks unanswered can prevent a negative charge from gaining credibility or making a lasting impression in voters’ minds.

“We were very sharp, we were very quick to respond,” said one successful candidate. “We were very good at anticipating what the other side was going to do. We didn’t let a news cycle go by without being there.”

For Candidates

  1. Develop a Debate Strategy. Determine how many debates benefit you. Challengers want many, incumbents, far fewer. Create a debate team, ask for a briefing book and schedule time for prep. Select a practice “opponent” who is well-versed in the style and messages of the opponent. Videotape and review practice sessions, paying special attention to facial expressions, tone of voice and hand gestures.
    Replicate the Physical Setting of the Debate as Closely as Possible.
  2. The final debate prep should include the same physical requirements (such as standing at a podium) as those in the real debate. Consider whether you will read from a teleprompter, be to the left or right of your opponent and where the moderators will stand. And practice, practice, practice.
  3. Know Your Debate Objective. Are you trying to be the most knowledgeable? Relaxed? Combative? Study what voters need to know about you and then show them. For example, if you are the candidate of “financial skills,” start or end your answers with the fiscal impact or budget repercussions.
  4. Be Ready For the “Gotcha” Moment. Be prepared for your opponent to wave props, ask you to sign an ethics pledge, demand that you accept a spending limit or renounce a previous position. If you are the aggressive one, avoid the melodramatic. Remember, voters like a candidate who is direct.
  5. Humor Often Wins the Day. Self-deprecating humor is appreciated in a tense moment and can make a candidate appear more human and mask unsteadiness. Don’t be afraid to show this side of your personality. Voters are looking for a genuine glimpse of who you are.
  6. Stand Up for Yourself. Voters are looking for someone to stand up for them against powerful interests. If you send the press secretary or campaign manager to answer a serious charge, voters understandably wonder if you can stand up for them.
  7. Research and Advertise Your Victories. Ask your staff to prepare a list of case studies illustrating your public policy victories. Use these examples as defining moments in your public service. Repeat them often.