A new playbook for female candidates

When Hillary Clinton announced her 2008 presidential bid, she spoke of the future, of “bold but practical changes” and renewing “the promise of America.” Of her biography, she said that she was from “a middle-class family in the middle of America.” But except for a lone mention of having been first lady and a genderless allusion to “breaking barriers,” Clinton’s announcement could just as well have been delivered by a man. 

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) also spoke of change and promise (albeit of a different kind) when she announced her own run for president last month. But, addressing a crowd at the former home of the Waterloo Women’s Club, in Waterloo, Iowa, it was clear that Bachmann intended to speak as a woman and not just as a candidate. She talked about her husband and their small business, and said she first ran for public office to improve her children’s schools. In her unofficial announcement in an earlier Republican debate, Bachmann also talked about raising five children and fostering an additional 23.

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This is the new playbook for female candidates. Women and their campaign teams now recognize — and indeed strategize around — women’s unique appeal to voters. Whereas voter bias against women historically has been a liability in campaigns, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation’s new research on female candidates for governor in 2010 shows that gender now might be a strategic asset for women. 

To begin with, women can be 360-degree candidates. By using all of their experiences and expertise, women have a broader range of opportunities than men to connect with voters. As one consultant we interviewed for our research said, female candidates can be “relatable, knowing a family budget, about school and work-life balance … the advantage is [they] can play both sides.” Another campaign manager spoke in similar terms, noting that female candidates “can be tough and policy-minded and still talk to people about [their] kids.”

This perception is a dramatic shift from earlier elections, in which female candidates were often advised not to discuss their personal lives for fear that it would detract from their seriousness and electability. Our research shows that today the biggest predictor of votes for women is likeability, and that voters find female candidates likeable if they are problem-solvers, have the right priorities and are strong — all qualities that women can prove through their professional lives and their personal lives. 

In the past, young children were an especially tricky subject for female candidates. Voters were generally uncomfortable with the idea of female candidates with small children and had questions about the children’s care and well-being once their mothers were in office. When Heidi Heitkamp ran against a male opponent for governor of North Dakota in 2000, she was often quizzed about the age of her children. Her response? “They’re the same age as my opponent’s kids.”

Although the economy isn’t a specific advantage for female candidates, voters in 2010 did not disadvantage women on economic issues the way they have in past elections. And the perception that women have experience with family budgets could be relatable to voters; one consultant we interviewed said that in tough economic times, voters thought women understood pocketbook issues and would level with them. 

Of course, this is not to say that female candidates suddenly have the upper hand in campaigns. First of all, there’s nothing sudden about the gains female candidates have made throughout our 12 years of research. Bias against female candidates will persist, whether it’s aimed at women with young families or women’s ability to handle economic issues. Some voters simply won’t vote for the woman on the ticket. 

Also, the advantages for female candidates aren’t always shared across the aisle. While voters do give women overall an advantage on honesty and ethics, our research shows that in 2010 that advantage was most pronounced for Democratic women running against Republican men. Republican women also were more successful in positioning themselves as outsiders and agents of change.

Still, the ways in which Republican and Democratic women alike connect with voters in 2012 will be different than in the past. Female candidates will rely on the professional and the personal to show voters the full spectrum of their qualifications. They will talk about their children, their spouses, their experience managing a family budget. The playbook has changed for everyone. 

Lee is founder and president of The Barbara Lee Family Foundation.