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

Key Findings in 2010

1 Likeability matters most for women candidates

Likeability — whether a candidate is viewed favorably by voters — has become the single most important predictor of the vote for women. In 2010, the more likeable candidate won in nine of the ten races in which women ran for governor. As one pollster said of women candidates,“Women care more and connect better.” Another pollster who has worked with many women candidates offered, “Women candidates are in touch with people…and in their corner.”

Likeability appears to be more important in races with women candidates — either woman vs. man or woman vs. woman — than in all-male races.

{chart no. 1} In races with women candidates, in all of these states except Florida, the candidate with the highest favorability won. The men vs. men states split in this regard. Of the five Democratic women candidates, four received net favorable ratings.

A reporter described what makes a candidate likeable:

“She’s very funny and very personable, and so I think that helped her. She has this real kind of humanity that comes across when you meet her. I mean, she just has this very kind of what-you-see-is-what-you- get vibe to her, whereas [the opponent] is much more cerebral and policy wonkish.”

How do candidates convey this critical trait? In 2010, voter and candidate party identification had the strongest impact on a candidate’s likeability, but Democratic and Republican women candidates needed to “have and set the right priorities” and “share people’s values” in order to maintain likeability.

For a Republican woman running against a Democratic man, predictors of likeability included:

  • “having and setting the right priorities”
  • being perceived as“honest and ethical”
  • “knowing what she’s doing”
  • “sharing voter values”
  • being a “problem solver”
  • being“in touch with her life”
  • being“strong”
  • and “looking like a Governor”

{chart no. 2} In the woman vs. woman states, having honesty and ethics, setting the right priorities, knowing what you’re doing, and being strong are predictive of favorability for both the Democratic and Republican women candidates.

For a Democratic woman facing a Republican man, traits predicting a favorable view of the Democratic woman included:

  • “having and setting the right priorities”
  • “bringing about change”
  • “sharing voter values”
  • and being “strong”

In races between two women, these traits predicted to favorability for both Democratic and Republican women:

  • being“honest and ethical”
  • “setting the right priorities”
  • “knowing what she’s doing”
  • and being “strong”

{chart no. 3} Having and setting the right priorities and sharing people’s values are predictive traits for both the Democratic and Republican women. Being seen as a typical politician is a negative factor for likeability.

2 Setting priorities and sharing voters’ values

When a voter believes that a candidate has and sets the right priorities and shares her or his values, that voter is likely to have a favorable impression of the candidate. This is true whether the candidate is a Democratic or Republican woman. In this era of reduced budgets and constrained resources, voters really value a candidate who has the right priorities.

Candidates and campaign teams corroborated the power of sharing people’s values. For one senior advisor, it was one more way to “connect with people.” For a pollster, sharing values is consistent with his view that “women usually run to make a difference.”

Many campaigns used call-to-action language to suggest shared priorities.“Join the movement” and “Take our state back” were both employed by campaigns to convey shared values and goals with voters.

For Candidates

  1. Practice the Rule of Threes. Know and repeat your top three priorities. This gives voters enough opportunities to agree with you, but not so many that they can’t remember what you stand for. Also, contrast your priorities with your opponent’s priorities.
  2. Include voters. Even if they never see the inside of your campaign headquarters, asking people to join in a common effort to end corruption, clean a harbor, or reduce the deficit gives them a sense that by supporting you they are doing something to achieve their goal.
  3. Provide a rationale. By communicating your priorities, and how you will go about achieving them, you give voters a rational basis on which to choose you as their representative.
  4. Live your shared values. If literacy is the priority, hold a book drive. If energy conservation is the shared value, drive a hybrid.
  5. Identify savings and investments. Your most important focus for setting priorities will be the state budget. Be prepared to say what’s on the chopping block and what you’ll prioritize.

3Voters like problem-solvers

A woman candidate’s biggest opportunity to close the leadership gap is being seen as a problem-solver. In our past research, being perceived as a leader, particularly by male voters, meant that women candidates needed to display toughness. Previously, voters have seen toughness as decisiveness like that shown in the quick back-and- forth of a debate or standing up to powerful interests on behalf of constituents.

But in 2010, problem-solving trumped toughness as a key leadership quality. Importantly, problem-solving is a more easily achievable characteristic for women candidates than toughness.

In surveys, women voters rated women candidates as more effective and better problem solvers than male voters did.A woman candidate agreed, saying,“I think people do still see women as more inclusive and problem-solvers. So, I think that is an advantage.”

A woman focus group participant described men as more intent on process, while women looked for solutions.

“They (men) seem to buddy up…and women seem to be more innovative and they’ll try something new…”

Problem-solving is a crucial trait for successful women candidates, but it is even more powerful when voters see it combined with other traits they value. A woman problem-solver who stands up for people and has worked with a state legislature has a combination of traits that is extremely powerful for all voters.

For women voters, other valued traits included being decisive, honest, and a political outsider; looking like a Governor; and sharing voters’ values.1

Problem-solving is a more easily achievable characteristic for women candidates than toughness.

The strongest predictors of the male vote in states with one woman on the ballot included being a problem solver; being fiscally responsible; being in touch with voters’ lives; handling a crisis; and standing up for people.2

For voters of both genders and parties, being a problem-solver is key.

For Candidates

  1. Define yourself as a problem-solver. Show that you’re a problem-solver from day one. Even if you have an uncontested or non-competitive primary, take advantage of the opportunity to show voters who you are and why they should support you.
  2. Include voters. Even if they never see the inside of your campaign headquarters, asking people to join in a common effort to end corruption, clean a harbor, or reduce the deficit gives them a sense that by supporting you they are doing something to achieve their goal.
  3. Take credit. In describing yourself as a problem-solver, use the pronoun “I,” not “we.” Voters are electing you to be in charge.
  4. Use policy examples based on personal stories. Describing how you hunted down a lost social security check for a senior citizen conveys your problem-solving ability just as much as offering a compromise budget amendment.
  5. Plan to solve the problem. Offer voters a plan, experts who support it, and evidence of past success.

4Strong is likeable

Across all states where women ran for Governor in 2010, strength was a trait that forecasted a favorable view of the candidate.Women candidates showed voters strength by demonstrating moral character and conviction, showing managerial skill, being decisive, and standing up for people.

Strength differs from toughness. As we reported in Positioning Women to Win, 3 the distinction that voters draw may lie in the difference between the personal and the political. Strength is seen as a function of character while toughness is demonstrated through actions in the political arena.

In the past, voters saw strength and toughness as interrelated and necessary qualities for successful candidates.That set up a double bind for women candidates, who needed to show that they were strong and tough, but not so tough as to put voters off. By taking on a big entity like oil, insurance, or utility companies on behalf of consumers — “slaying a dragon” — women candidates showed strength and toughness without seeming “too tough.” This brand of toughness had no downside.

In 2010, voters uncoupled strength and toughness … This is good news for women candidates.

Strength remained an important trait for women, but voters were less concerned with toughness and more concerned with problem- solving.This is good news for women candidates, especially when it comes to male voters who historically have factored toughness into their voting decisions and were less likely to attribute that characteristic to women.

Independent voters gave women candidates of both parties credit for being strong.Voters saw Democratic women and Republican women who ran against men as having the advantage on being strong. On this point, there was an underlying sentiment among campaign teams that voters gave women extra credit on strength for being in the fray during an election climate that was so partisan and negative.

Still, some women candidates believed voters hold women to a higher standard when it comes to strength.As one candidate explained,“[Voters] require management experience and strength. And voters, not just men voters, but women voters, too, give men an edge as a starting place.”

For Candidates

  1. Define yourself as a problem-solver. Show evidence of competence. Showing that you are a capable manager in the private or public sector conveys strength. Running a department, an agency, a large staff, or overseeing a big budget can all add credibility to your ability
  2. to lead.

  3. Highlight your crisis management skills.Holding a press conference during an emergency reassures constituents and provides a visual example of strong leadership.
  4. Share your personal challenges. Personal challenges can reveal strength of character, as can mastering physical challenges like excelling in sports that require endurance or arduous preparation. If you’re a marathon runner, let the voters know.
  5. Be decisive. You have an opportunity to show your strength by quickly and firmly responding to a charge from the opposition or when your record is misrepresented.
  6. Use action-oriented language. Own your work and ideas. Take credit for them.

5New views on change and difference

A decade ago, voters automatically saw women candidates as agents of change: rare, outside the political process, and likely to reform it when they were on the inside.That’s no longer the case. Now accustomed to seeing women in government leadership roles, most voters no longer automatically view women as outsiders or agents of change.

“Not anymore. Not anymore,” said one focus group participant; and another responded “not as much as it used to be, but a little bit still.” Another focus group participant offered an explanation,“…the political machine has realized that if they didn’t bring women in that the public was going to have an outrage…”

In 2010, partisanship, more than gender, drove voter perceptions of who was an agent of change. Democratic candidates — both men and women — had a particularly difficult time being perceived as change agents.Voters, including Independent voters, saw men and women Republican candidates as being more likely to bring about change. Republican women enjoyed this advantage over both men and women opponents. Democratic women lost the “outsider” advantage they may have been granted before, but they had less of a disadvantage on being perceived as change agents than Democratic men in 2010.

For Candidates

  1. Don’t accept the status quo. If anything can be done faster, better, or cheaper, create the change to make it possible.
  2. Change = improvement. When communicating to voters about your reasons for running, talk about those things you’ll work to change.
  3. You can be “in,” but don’t be “of” government. Promote your government experience as well as the steps you’ve taken to bring about change.
  4. Speak conversationally. Using technical names for legislation “AB 32,” “House Res. 432,” or “the NTSB,” suggests that you are too much of an insider. Use conversational language that is easy for people to understand.
  5. Show how you’re different. To avoid being seen as a typical politician and to underscore your outsider perspective, emphasize what you have done differently than your legislative colleagues. What’s different because you serve? Do you have a different approach?
  6. Depart from the party script. Share examples of your independence: votes in opposition to your legislative leadership, disagreements with Party leaders, agreeing with the people rather than institutions or lobbyists.

{chart no. 4} Women candidates do not receive automatic outsider status due to their gender. Strong majorities across the states do not see women as outsiders. Younger women are more likely to see women as outsiders, but even here two-thirds do not see women candidates in this light. Do you think women candidates for elected office today are seen as outsiders or are they not really seen as outsiders?

Difference between men and women officeholders

Overall, voters in 2010 did not see women officeholders as all that different from men.This is a potentially negative finding for women candidates, since the view that women are different from men in office positively predicts to voting for the women candidate.

Interestingly, in 2010, voters in Arizona, California and Maine, states where voters have had more experience with women officeholders, were not more likely to perceive a difference between women and men officeholders.

{chart no.5} Overall, voters across the states do not see women officeholders as all that different than men. A narrow majority in Oklahoma see women as different, while voters across the other states split or do not see a difference. Younger and older women alike lean toward the view that women officeholders are different by a few points, though intensity is weak.

1Refers to regressions run on the six states combined that had either a Democratic or Republican woman running against a man
2Refers to regressions described in footnote 1
3Barbara Lee Family Foundation research on the 2006 election cycle