Positioning Women to Win (2006)

Chronic Challenges: Closer Scrutiny of Public Appearance Persists

Perhaps nowhere in this research is the double standard more pronounced than on the issue of personal presentation. Campaigns report that the press routinely described men and women differently. Media reports about a woman candidate’s dress, hair, weight and style persist, while men’s physical attributes are rarely mentioned critically.

In addition, candidates, consultants and staff repeatedly advised that voters demand “authenticity” – that a candidate should, above all, be herself.

Be Aware of Your Visual Definition

In interview after interview, managers and staff of both incumbent and non-incumbent candidate campaigns repeated tales of disparate treatment by the press on the issue of appearance. One campaign manager reported the common story, “The news would say ‘the candidate appeared before the media in her trademark shapeless skirts’ and it’s like, oh my God, they would never say ‘our male opponent appeared in his scruffy wingtips and rumpled shirt.’”

According to the campaigns, voters drew complex conclusions about the candidates from their appearance. Sometimes candidates needed to let down their hair. One finance director reported, “I think she’s so well dressed and so well put together that to some people that didn’t appeal to them. She was almost ‘perfect.’”

And sometimes a candidate needed to spruce up her act, as was evident for the candidate whose opponent ran ads showing her in shorts and t-shirt. “You’re running for governor and suddenly they start criticizing how you’re dressing and how you carry yourself. There was a lot of criticism about the clothes she wore. You don’t face this with men,” said a somewhat exasperated campaign manager.

Incumbent governors showed by their uniformly crisp, tailored and understated appearance that dress and style can underscore important positive attributes like pride, discipline and organization.
But even popular incumbent governors were not beyond the reach of the critical pen. As another campaign manager reported about the campaign’s press secretary, “After the campaign was over she had to remind one reporter that you don’t talk about what size clothes the Senators wear.”

Authenticity is a Strategy

A common goal across incumbent and non-incumbent campaigns was to let voters see the real person, not a manufactured candidate. Both non-incumbent and incumbent campaigns aimed to achieve this transparency. “The overall strategy was to let the candidate be the candidate,” summarized one pollster.

And when this strategy works, it works well. As a reporter observed, “Voters like her and they like her because she is exactly how she seems – really, really smart, really hardworking and with a real vision for the future of the state.”

But in some campaigns the drive for authenticity appeared confused and the result was a candidate who conveyed an attitude of “anything goes.” In some campaigns, a candidate’s unique qualities were viewed as charming. In others, a candidate’s individuality or ”quirkiness” was made out to be negative.

Here, again, incumbent governors got it right. Their staffs made assessments of strengths and weaknesses and deliberately put the governor in settings where her best, true self could emerge.

In the words of one campaign manager, “We had to deal with the fact that some people saw her as a little reserved and aloof and frankly in some settings she is, and that’s why we like the setting with children, where she is never reserved or aloof.”

Consciously Choose Your Campaign Style. For all the time and money you will spend on your campaign, spend some time thinking about when and where you are most comfortable. What kind of business attire makes you feel least self conscious? What kind of jewelry is most flattering, but least distracting?

For Candidates

  1. Stick With What Works. Once you find a look that works for you, stick with it. Governors Napolitano, Lingle and Sebelius looked the same in their 2006 campaign ads as in 2002. Steady. Solid. Sincere.
  2. Appropriate Attire Requested. Women voters, in particular, have an expectation that
    women running for governor will present themselves as serious individuals. Even casual settings and events require slightly more spit-and-polish than you’d apply in your civilian life.
  3. Authenticity Isn’t Undisciplined. Part of your job as a candidate for governor is to resist the urge to tell inappropriate jokes, wear funny hats or have one too many. Showing voters the “real you” requires just as much focus and discipline as any other campaign objective. If you can share your passion, conviction, command of your subject, humor and compassion for others, people will be drawn to your inherent decency.
  4. You Can’t Rewind. Candid phone messages. Over-generous introductions. Off-the-cuff quips. When your own words are used against you in mail or ads, they raise doubts for voters who thought they knew you. In a ‘You Tube’ world, you can’t afford free form moments.