Turning Point: The Changing Landscape for Women Candidates (2010)

Gender (Dis)Advantages

Opportunities for strategic gains

In 2010, women candidates for the first time showed an advantage over male opponents in connecting with voters by using the full range of their personal, professional, and community experiences and relationships. Voters continued to give women candidates overall an advantage on honesty (Democratic women held a large advantage over Republican men on this trait, while Democratic men held a narrow advantage over Republican women). Voters also judged women candidates more harshly than their male counterparts when they believed they were engaged in negative campaigning. Understanding these qualities and voters’ responses to them can give women candidates a competitive edge and help them avoid unnecessary pitfalls.

1The 360°candidate

For the first time in our 12 years of research, consultants reported that women candidates are on the verge of a gender advantage. By equaling men in professional and government management experience and besting them in managing personal issues and relationships, women have more opportunities to connect with voters.

A pollster defined this advantage this way:“You know they can manage things pretty well because they are moms and wives. I think that’s strength.They’re more open to dialogue, more consensus builders. Isn’t it just that a woman can use everything and if she does, voters will perceive her as more?”

A campaign manager spoke about a woman candidate’s ability to “use everything” including her personal experience. In his view, that made her more “relatable, knowing a family budget, about school and work-life balance…the advantage is you can play both sides.”Another campaign manager spoke in similar terms, noting,“You can be tough and policy-minded and still talk to people about your kids.”

In earlier election cycles, women candidates were reluctant to share much of their personal lives,fearing that it detracted from their seriousness and electability.That reserve appears to be dissolving as women candidates make progress with voters by using messages that convey,“I am like you. I am on your side.”

One note of caution: our prior research shows that some voters are still wary of a woman with young children running for office.As more moms run,issues like extended-family childcare and stay-at-home partners will become part of the discussion.

For Candidates

  1. Try a discovery exercise. Write your obituary. Is there a better way to find out what you believe is meaningful and important among the things you’ve done or those you hope to accomplish? This exercise can help you identify and integrate personal and professional successes and clarify the values at the base of your reasons for running.
  2. Spin your experience. Think through what’s in your background that’s potentially awkward for you and how you can turn it into an asset.
  3. Use everything. That waitressing job you had in college may be the gateway to connecting with women who don’t yet see you as “like them.” Present your full range of experience, personal, professional and in the community.
  4. Tap networks. Explore your own biography to find the overlapping networks of school friends, elected allies, professional colleagues, neighbors, and kindred sports fans in your electoral base.
  5. Reference family. Even if you choose to keep your family far from the campaign trail, you can and should let people hear your point of view as parent, child, spouse or partner. That’s the thing about family — everyone has one.

2“Tough enough” is enough for voters

Deciding the appropriate degree of toughness has stumped many women candidates and campaign teams. Toughness and the penalty women can pay for being perceived as “too tough” has been an evolving topic since the start of our research.

In 2010, toughness did not predict either likeability or the vote. Both men and women voters separated toughness from strength and showed less concern about whether a woman was tough enough for the job. This is a significant change for women candidates who have long been challenged to show that they were tough enough, but not so tough as to become unlikeable.

Toughness did correlate with problem-solving and handling a crisis, traits where many women candidates have an edge.

Despite this decline in voter concern about a woman’s toughness, consultants and campaign teams continue to sound the alarm on the issue of toughness. Operatives reported their observations that women are routinely tested on personal toughness (can she take it?); on ideological toughness (is she committed enough?); and managerial toughness (can she handle the legislature and her campaign?).

For Candidates

  1. Be mentally tough. Don’t slow down your campaign operations or lose your focus over a decision. Mental toughness is essential to keeping your campaign on course. Weigh a decision thoroughly and quickly; confer with experienced advisors; solidify your messages. Make the decision and move on.
  2. Don’t confuse harshness with toughness. Voters give women points on toughness for being in the political arena. But they can quickly deduct points if they perceive that a candidate is too focused on her opponent rather than the issues. Stand firm on principles, but remember that harshness can be perceived as negative campaigning.
  3. Be an authority, not a bully. Persistence, specificity, knowing what you’re talking about, effectiveness, standing your ground, defending your position, and standing up for those less powerful are all qualities that could lead a voter to conclude that you are tough, without actually acting tough.
  4. Know when to stand apart. Most of the time, candidates are well served to appear in public surrounded by supporters and staff. On occasion and to make a point, a candidate should face the cameras, the public or her opponent by herself.

As one campaign manager pointed out, newcomers will have to prove their ideological toughness.“If you’re an unknown and you’re a woman in a Republican primary, the threshold of proving to primary voters that you are sufficiently ideologically sound is higher than men have…a woman must show she is adequately conservative.” The apparent conflict between voter and campaign views on toughness in 2010 may mean that campaign teams relied on perceptions of toughness from past elections rather than current voter opinion.

Another test of toughness is a candidate’s willingness to trust her own instincts. Here’s how an operative described his candidate on this score: “…she had the guts to do the right thing from the beginning…Her gut instinct has been right all along on everything. And her gut is what…ultimately led us to victory and having a path that we could navigate and succeed.”

{chart no. 8} In the states with Democratic women, women voters give the female candidate more credit on these toughness traits, though men are not far behind. This is in stark contrast to the past where men were much harsher. Male voters were harder on Republican women candidates than women voters, especially on toughness, but both thought the Republican woman was better on toughness than their male opponents.

As we have seen in the past, perceptions of strength and toughness are quite different. In 2010, neither traits predicts to the vote.Women voters gave Democratic women candidates more credit on strength, but gave Republican women less credit than male voters on strength.Women voters rated the women candidates as more effective and bet- ter problem solvers than male voters.The charts on candidate trait and issue advantages are calculated as the difference between the vote margin and trait advantage margin. For example, if the vote margin is +10 points Democratic, then a trait margin of +15 points Democratic results in an overall net Democratic advantage of 5 points. A trait margin of +3 points Democratic results in a net Democratic advantage of -7 points. Having an advantage on negative and positive traits/issues is beneficial.

3Voters assume honesty and penalize perceived dishonesty

Voters historically have accorded women candidates a “virtue advantage,” seeing them as more honest and ethical than men.That remains true, especially among Independent voters, though by a smaller margin and with significant partisan differences. In 2010, Democratic women who faced Republican men enjoyed a wide advantage on perceptions of honesty and ethics. This was a more difficult trait for Republican women who faced Democratic men. In fact, Republican women trailed men on this trait by several points. This is particularly important because voters who see women as offering unique traits like honesty are more likely to support a woman candidate.

One media consultant noted, “In my experience voters are more likely to think that a woman candidate is in politics for the right reasons.They [voters] tend to start from a presumption that they are less corruptible and more honest and have more integrity than males.”

But the advantage that voters accord women on honesty can be dramatically reversed if they perceive that a woman candidate has been dishonest or acted unethically. A woman candidate who falls off her pedestal pays a high price in the loss of voter esteem, especially among women voters who expect a woman to be different. And because the cost of an ethical infraction is higher for a woman, campaigns against women candidates often launch negative media with an assault on a woman’s values or character.

For Candidates

  1. Be transparent. Set a standard of openness and stick to it. Your website is a great place to publish your public schedule, post video of speeches and debates, release position papers, and feature print interviews.
  2. Don’t be a goody two-shoes. Unless you are certain that your opponent seriously or habitually violates ethical, financial, or legal rules, do not be the first to raise the issue. No one likes a whiner.
  3. Be careful. Conduct opposition research on yourself. Decide on a strategy to deal with anything that could be harmful with the most seasoned, trusted, and experienced person on your team. Prepare opposition research on your family members and business partners, as well. Anticipate what character attacks might be made against you or your family instead of giving that advantage to your opponent.
  4. Acknowledge mistakes. Everyone makes them. Quickly take responsibility and move on. Don’t over- explain or respond for longer than one news cycle.
  5. Don’t set yourself up. Before you or your campaign make an accusation against an opponent, review your research to ensure that neither you nor anyone associated with you or the campaign have done the same thing.

4The high price of perceived negative campaigning

Negative campaigning undercuts all gender advantages for women candidates. Voters see negative campaigning by a woman candidate as a clear indication that she is a “typical politician,” eliminating any other gains she may have earned for being a woman candidate. Because likeability is so important, no voter believes that she would be running negative ads or attacking an opponent so aggressively if she were the candidate. Consequently, those candidates who are perceived as going negative are judged as more of the same.

Critiquing an opponent’s record, priorities or decisions without being seen as negative is an extraordinary challenge for women candidates and their campaign teams. Campaign staff and consultants reported that it is much more difficult for a woman to execute a critical strategy without repercussions than it is for a man.

As one candidate said, “I don’t like those commercials, they make us look bad. To me as women if we want respect as women in office, we have to kind of put all that stuff aside…”

For Candidates

  1. Be factual. Present comparisons of voting records factually and document the sources of the information for voters. Use footnotes and refer to corroborating information, “Candidate X cast the deciding vote as reported by the Times.”
  2. Be accurate. In 2010, several campaigns suffered setbacks because their opposition research was inaccurate or incomplete. If an opponent’s shortcoming is significant enough to be the focus of an ad, it is important enough to double-check. Review the source material yourself. You will be answering for it.
  3. Be fair and relevant. It may be accurate to say that an opponent’s teenage child was expelled from school, but how is it fair or relevant?
  4. Find a referee. When drawing a contrast between your record and an opponent’s, use a neutral expert to deliver the criticism.
  5. Avoid melodrama. Fuzzy pictures, scary music, extreme language and loose facts are the hallmarks of ads that turn voters off. Set a standard with your campaign team and review this checklist before each new critical ad.
  6. Third party validators. Use third parties to reinforce your position.

Candidates and consultants repeatedly pointed to the costly toll of airing negative ads. “It’s been my experience if you’re a woman and you go negative on a man it eventually hurts you more,” observed a pollster. A senior advisor in a different race reported of his candidate “her negative ads hurt her with women [voters].” One candidate in a race between two women lamented that even a neutral comparison of records can be perceived as negative, “I think there’s a public perception of when women try to battle it out on issues that they are in a cat fight. And just talking about each other’s records gets perceived as something it’s not.”

Critiquing an opponent’s record, priorities, or decisions without being seen as negative is an extraordinary challenge for women candidates and their campaign teams.

Of course, all candidates need to contrast their beliefs and records with those of their opponent. The manner in which a woman candidate presents the contrast, the messenger, and the tone and style of the ads, all make a critical difference in whether a voter views a woman candidate as engaging in negative campaigning.