Politics May 2013

Why Both the Dems and the GOP Now Think Voters Prefer Female Candidates

A woman's edge?
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The Heads of State

In the two-year cycle of the political calendar, it is candidate-recruitment season—the time when Washington operatives fan out across the country to size up the political horseflesh. In the months to come, they will meet with scores of state legislators, small-town mayors, community activists, and upstanding business owners, gauging which ones might have what it takes to run for a House or Senate seat, or for governor or state treasurer. These political scouts will take many qualities into account, from life story to speaking ability to baby-kissing skills. But they will be looking, in particular, for a few good women.

These days, political consultants take for granted that, all else being equal, women make more desirable candidates. Which means that Democratic and Republican operatives alike yearn for nothing more than to discover the next Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat and former natural-gas-plant director who was elected the junior senator from North Dakota last November, or Deb Fischer, a previously little-known state legislator who won a tough Republican primary and then beat former Senator Bob Kerrey on her way to the Senate last year. Democrats recently failed in their efforts to recruit the actress Ashley Judd to run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell next year, but the 2014 election cycle will nonetheless feature a legion of eagerly anticipated female political prospects, from Pennsylvania’s Allyson Schwartz, a Democrat preparing to seek the governorship, to West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican running for Senate. “Women make wonderful candidates for Republicans,” Mike Shields, the chief of staff at the Republican National Committee (formerly the political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee), told me. “It’s no secret our party needs to make progress with women voters, and for that, we need more women leaders.” Democrats feel the same way, according to Andrew Myers, a Democratic pollster who works with an array of local, statewide, and congressional candidates. “We are always looking for more women to run,” he said.

In one study, an inexperienced female candidate was viewed as stronger, more honest, and more compassionate than an inexperienced male candidate.

This preference for women candidates may surprise you if you’re accustomed to thinking of female politicians in terms of the barriers they face—from Geraldine Ferraro’s being asked on Meet the Press in 1984 if “the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman,” to Hillary Clinton’s being heckled at a rally in 2008 by men shouting “Iron my shirt!” Women in politics, it has long been assumed, are trapped in a disabling web of double standards—presumed by voters to be weaker and less capable leaders, but punished for violating gender norms if they do act tough or get angry. Even though women were elected to Congress in record numbers in 2012, their representation still languishes at just 18 percent in the House and 20 percent in the Senate.

And yet the political operatives may be onto something. Evidence suggests that double standards may have once applied but don’t any longer. Shields and Myers prefer female candidates for a simple reason: voters, they say, tend to assume women are more trustworthy, less corruptible, and more in touch with everyday concerns. In a white-male-dominated political system, women are seen as outsiders. “Voters want change,” Shields said. “A woman candidate personifies change just by being on the ballot.” Myers added that, in these intolerably gridlocked times, “voters believe women are more likely to compromise and find common ground and solutions, and less likely to argue and triangulate for political advantage.” Both consultants also emphasized that women are harder to criticize than men. Sharp-edged attacks, particularly by male rivals, risk running afoul of the societal bias against, essentially, hitting a girl. The classic example: Clinton’s 2000 Senate race, in which her opponent, Rick Lazio, left his podium during a debate to demand that she sign a campaign-finance pledge. Lazio’s physically confrontational gesture was regarded as bullying, and helped sink his campaign.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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