Column: Voters look to female candidates
In a year of national turmoil, one enduring bright spot has been the record number of women who’ve stepped up and announced their intention to run for office. Nonprofit women’s organizations across the political spectrum have reported a dramatic uptick in inquiries from potential first-time candidates. Newspapers are profiling a new class of women political hopefuls spanning all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. Longtime political observers are predicting another “Year of the Woman” that could dramatically alter the face of government.
After the stunning defeat of the first woman nominated by a major party for the presidency, can women hope to win over a deeply divided electorate in 2018? The answer, according to new research from my organization, is a resounding yes. Though challenges remain, a number of factors make the 2018 field uniquely favorable for women on both sides of the aisle.
First, while incumbents traditionally hold advantages, American voters — increasingly frustrated with the political status quo — are hungering for change in 2018. Women have the chance to represent that change, by emphasizing the fresh perspective and distinctive approach they will bring to governing.
In a sea of male — mostly white — elected officials, women stand out, and decades of analysis show that they do indeed govern differently, appearing more in touch with the lives of their constituents, and more open to bringing people on both sides of the aisle together to get things done. In 2018, women can turn their outsider status into an asset by convincing voters that a vote for a woman is a vote to shake up the system and solve its most intractable problems.
Second, our findings show that while gender remains a factor in voters’ perception of candidates, the impact of gender stereotypes on female candidates is not necessarily negative.
Many of the characteristics voters associate with women — including honesty, integrity and authenticity — are highly prized by today’s electorate. Unsurprisingly, the strength and impact of these perceptions depends largely on candidates’ and voters’ respective party affiliations. Still, in many categories, women on both sides of the aisle benefit from their gender, with Democratic women candidates accentuating traditional Democratic advantages and Republican women overcoming some of the weaknesses voters typically associate with women and Republican candidates.
For example, on issues of health care and education — where Republicans tend to poll weakest — Democratic women enjoy a huge advantage over Republican men, while Republican women neutralize their party’s vulnerabilities. On national security, a traditionally challenging area for women to prove their credentials, Republican women make up ground, performing as well as their male Democratic opponents.
Across the board, voters are giving women the green light to run, but that doesn’t mean they can expect to cruise into office. To win, women candidates need to showcase a clear record of accomplishments in their communities, pointing to specific results — creating jobs, passing reforms, or balancing a budget — and not just points on a resume.
In 2018, 468 seats in Congress, 36 governorships and more than 5,000 state and local office positions will be up for grabs, and women have an unprecedented opportunity to fill more of them than ever before. The field is wide open, and first-time candidates, even those with little or no experience in elected office, have a real shot at winning if they can convince voters they have what it takes to bring about change.
Knowledge is power, and while every candidate brings a different set of experiences to the table, understanding voter perceptions of gender can help women lean into their advantages while controlling areas in which they may be more vulnerable. Our research affirms that women can win when they showcase their accomplishments, demonstrate their passion for key campaign issues, and highlight the difference women make when they serve as elected officials. By deploying these insights, women candidates of all backgrounds can make the most of this opportune moment, make the leap into leadership, and make better policy that reflects the rich diversity of our nation.
Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.