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


The 2010 election was the most partisan and polarized in recent American history. Political partisanship trumped all other factors in voters’ decisions, and a desire for change drove many voters to the polls. Voters were conflicted — wanting candidates with government experience and candidates they saw as outsiders able to implement change.

Amid this polarization and partisanship, voters’ views on gender and executive leadership shifted. Our 2010 polling and focus groups showed that gender had significantly less impact on voters’ decisions.Women competed in similar ways as their male counterparts, able to convey key traits to voters in equally persuasive ways. In fact, for the first time in our 12 years of research, we found more strategic advantages than disadvantages for women candidates.
In other words, gender may now give women candidates an edge.

Several candidate qualities that were once a priority for voters but challenging for women to demonstrate, such as toughness, are being replaced by more gender-neutral qualities, such as problem- solving and strength.Voters now rate women and men candidates equally on measures of economic competence. Essential for a winning campaign, credibility on the economy once put women at a disadvantage.That’s no longer automatically true.
These shifts eliminate a number of roadblocks women candidates historically have faced in campaigns for executive office. But in becoming less unique to voters, women candidates also have lost some key advantages.

In this guide, we take a closer look at voters’ complex views of women gubernatorial candidates in 2010. First, we review key traits shaping voters’ impressions and examine women’s newfound credibility on the economy.We then delve into the advantages and disadvantages of gender. Our voter spotlight looks at the preferences of younger women voters and independent voters.We also look ahead to the unique challenges presented by woman vs. woman races. Finally, we offer advice to campaign teams.

Our key findings show that:

  1. After partisanship, likeability is the candidate trait that most strongly predicts the vote, especially for races with women candidates.
  2. Being perceived as having and setting the right priorities forecasts likeability.This is true for women candidates of either party who ran against male opponents.
  3. Problem solving is a critical trait for candidates in establishing likeability and winning the vote.
  4. Strength is an important trait for women of both parties and also predicts likeability. “Strength” is a separate quality from “toughness,” which is no longer a priority for voters.
  5. Being perceived as an agent of change enhances a candidate’s likeability, though in 2010 the criteria voters used in evaluating women candidates as “change agents” shifted dramatically.
  6. Women candidates today are on equal footing with men in their ability to show mastery of the economy. Democrats overall were at a disadvantage on economic issues. 1
  7. Women candidates have more strategic advantages related to their gender than in years past.
  8. Voters judge women candidates more harshly — and penalize them accordingly — when they believe they are engaged in negative campaigning.
  9. Young women are conflicted about women candidates. Independent women are more likely than Independent men to vote for a woman.
  10. Looking ahead, woman vs. woman races pose new challenges and questions for women candidates.

1 Economic issues — such as making it easier to start and run a business, jobs and the economy, taxes, and creating a favorable business climate — are problematic issues for both male and female Democrats.