Opportunity Knocks

In 2017, women are mobilized and ready to run for leadership positions at every level of government. Our data supports their instincts that now is the time to run and serve. Indeed, it is an excellent time to be a woman running for office.

When opportunity knocks, how can a woman candidate best answer?

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has been studying female candidates for nearly 20 years, and we’ve never seen anything quite like 2017. This year, we’ve witnessed a tremendous increase in the number of women running for office, with thousands of women - many of whom are first-time candidates - announcing campaigns for offices ranging from the school board to the Senate. Our findings in Opportunity Knocks evaluate how today’s voters perceive women candidates, what qualities they’re looking for, and how women can monitor their perceived disadvantages while making the most of the opportunities.

Our Key Findings: What are today’s voters looking for in women candidates?

  • “Different” is a good thing for women in politics. Our research reveals that 4 in 10 voters say that female elected officials are a lot or somewhat different from male officials. In a time when Americans are frustrated by the political status quo, an “outsider” status is a good thing!
  • Voters attribute certain personal characteristics to women. For instance, Democratic women are seen as more likely to take on special interests when compared to male Republicans, but male candidates are typically seen as more confident. Republican women can benefit from their “outsider” status, but Democratic men are still more likely to be seen as “strong leaders.”
  • Voters perceive women as stronger on certain issues than their male counterparts. Republican women are considered stronger than Democratic men on the economy and taxes, and though Republicans are traditionally considered to be weak on education and health care, Republican women can neutralize those disadvantages. And when it comes to education and health care, voters believe Democratic women vastly outperform Republican men.
  • Illustrating achievements is a better strategy than focusing on a woman’s biography. Why say you’re a “small business owner” when you can say you’re a “business leader who created jobs?” Our previous research illustrates that it’s important for women candidates to demonstrate likeability and strong qualifications, and focusing on concrete, measurable accomplishments is a great way for women to assert that they’re qualified.
  • Gender and race both impact voters’ views, and these traits interact with each other. It’s especially important for both African American Democratic women candidates and Latina Republican candidates to show they are running because they saw the impact of an issue and they have been a leader in the community.

Watch our Opportunity Knocks webinar, featuring the BLFF research team.

Since January, there’s been a groundswell in women’s interest in the political process. The Women’s March galvanized women of all backgrounds, and now we’re seeing women make a transition from marching, to working on campaigns, to running for office themselves. -Barbara Lee

Our Key Tips: Strategies for Women Candidates

  • Know what advantages voters give you and what obstacles you have to overcome. 

    Republican or Democrat, all women candidates start off with advantages (and disadvantages) in the minds of voters. It’s important for candidates to make the most of any opportunities voters give them while working to counteract any disadvantages.

  • Illustrate specific accomplishments and achievements.

    Women candidates should be specific in order to highlight both likeability and qualifications to voters. Simply describing their professional backgrounds is not enough for women candidates.

  • Emphasize why it’s different when women are at the table.

    If a voter believes women are different than men when they serve as elected officials, that voter is more likely to support women candidates. Underscoring the differences, like women candidates being in touch with voters’ lives, can help women harness this advantage.

  • There’s no time like the present!

    A “different” face in politics is exactly what voters are looking for in today’s political atmosphere. Women bring new, fresh perspectives to a sea of male leadership, and underscoring the differences — such as how women candidates are more likely to be in touch with voters — can help women harness this advantage.

Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research designed and administered this survey that was conducted
over the phone from August 29 – September 10, 2017. The survey reached a total of 1,500 likely 2018
voters nationwide (779 women, 721 men) with oversamples of 200 African American and 200 Latino
voters. Telephone numbers were drawn from listed sample. The data were weighed slightly by age, party
identification, and education to reflect attributes of the actual population. The margin of error for the total
sample is +/-2.5% and 6.9% for oversample groups.

Opportunity Knocks: Now is the Time for Women Candidates (2017)

Today, women running for office are motivated by a renewed sense of urgency, as well as optimism about their ability to compete at a moment when voters are thirsting for new ideas and fresh perspectives. Our data supports their instincts that now is the time to run and serve. Indeed, it is an excellent time to be a woman running for office.

Finding Gender in Election (2016)

How did gender influence the 2016 presidential election? For Presidential Gender Watch 2016, the question extended well beyond the fact that for the first time, a major party nominated a woman as its presidential candidate. It even went beyond the majority-female electorate that chose the new commander-in-chief. Presidential Gender Watch’s new report highlights the answers to those questions.

Modern Family: How Women Candidates Can Talk About Politics, Parenting, and Their Personal Lives (2017)

As more women run for office and are elected, voters question how women can serve constituents and take care of family responsibilities at the same time. Women candidates wonder whether they should talk about their family and personal life and how to do so without alienating voters.

Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women (2019)

For 20 years, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation has studied every woman’s campaign for governor on both sides of the aisle, including real-time polling on voters’ views and post-election interviews with candidates and campaign staff. Our Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women offers the most direct, must-know advice we’ve gleaned for women elected officials and candidates running for office, and this 20th Anniversary Edition is a new, concise look at what it takes for a woman to run and succeed. From the personal traits, to actions that convey qualification and likeability, to bouncing back from mistakes or a loss, this nonpartisan guide shows that the challenges women face are surmountable—and they are often countered by strategic advantages