Positioning Women to Win (2006)

“Running my gubernatorial race was very different than running my previous race, and the Governor ’s Guidebook series played an integral role in answering the questions I didn’t even know to ask. I will certainly rely on Positioning Women to Win to guide me through the challenging issues that arise during my campaign for re-election.”
– Governor Christine Gregoire

“Winning an election can never be taken for granted. The Governors Guidebook series arms both incumbents and firsttime challengers with the “do’s” and “don’ts” of effectively communicating your achievements and vision. Leaders, regardless of gender, must develop a realistic and hopeful vision and be able to clearly articulate it to their supporters.”
– Governor Linda Lingle

When we began studying the results of the 1998 elections, only 16 women had served as governor in the entire 225-year history of the United States. Today, that number has risen to 36. Six women governors currently serve as the chief executive in their states: Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Oregon.

Among these are five incumbent women governors who were re-elected in 2006, the first year in which a class of women governors this large stood for re-election. The results were extremely encouraging. The two Republicans and three Democrats won by significant margins. Four skillfully prevented serious opposition; only one drew a real threat and, in the end, she won handily. Among the six non-incumbent women candidates for governor in 2006, only one – Sarah Palin of Alaska – succeeded.

Once voters have seen these women in action, they really like them as governors. The challenge for women is not leadership, but overcoming voters’ initial doubts in order to win the chance to lead in the first place.

In this guide we highlight the best practices of the victorious class of 2006 incumbents. We also identify the positive traits and policies voters now associate with female governors and their governing styles – keys to success for woman seeking any level of government office.

We start with an examination of chronic roadblocks for women candidates.

While none of the unsuccessful campaigns identified gender as the reason for its loss, every one could identify ways in which gender was a handicap in the race. Until women dismantle the roadblocks and get full credit for the benefits that flow from having them in the chief executive office, progress will be incremental.

  1. Double Standards Are Alive and Well. Men are able to win over voters with a combination of personality and job performance, while women must win voters over in each separate category. Men are presumed to be strong enough and tough enough for the job, but voters draw a distinction between a woman’s strength and her toughness. Women bear the burden of proving themselves on both.
  2. Access to Financial Circles Still Limited. Access to financial networks is still limited for female candidates. Women often start to develop these networks too late, especially among core constituencies.
  3. Greater Mastery of Facts and Figures Required. Women must demonstrate more expertise than men on issues associated with toughness and finances – immigration, taxes, budgets and attracting jobs.
  4. Closer Scrutiny of Public Appearance Persists. Media coverage of women’s dress, hair, weight and style persists in ways rarely applied to men. An authentic female candidate is “herself,” but appropriate for the occasion.

We finish with “best practices” from the incumbent governors, who, the evidence suggests, may be redefining voters’ expectations.

  1. Maintain a Cohesive Campaign Team. No political asset benefits a candidate as much as an experienced campaign organization where trust, collaboration and teamwork breed confidence in the strategy.
  2. Be Collaborative in Private, Be Decisive in Public. Women governors sought and achieved consensus within their organizations but presented and executed decisions as their own in public. Too often, non-incumbents exposed a chaotic decision-making process to outside scrutiny – raising questions about their leadership abilities.
  3. Seize the “Populist“ Presumption. Uniformly, successful women governors put themselves on the side of their constituents – embracing change and offering non-partisan solutions.
  4. Focus Message on Their Future. In their choice of language and plans for their states, successful governors focused their campaigns on improving everyday life for their constituents – not on themselves.

More than one political veteran suggested that voters now expect a governor to show competence, character, leadership skills PLUS empathy and compassion – qualities they have seen and liked in their women governors.

1In previous guidebooks, we tracked Republican and Democratic nominees. However, in the 2006 election cycle, we included Independent Texas candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a former State Comptroller who was polling second behind incumbent Governor Rick Perry and four points ahead of Democratic challenger Chris Bell (Rasmussen Reports, September 13, 2006: Perry, 33%; Strayhorn, 22%; Bell, 18%; Friedman, 16%). We also included Green Independent Party candi- date Patricia LaMarche and Independent candidate Barbara Merrill (both of Maine) in our survey research.