New study gives guidance for female political candidates

We all know that women are held to a different standard than men, and this is no more true than in politics. The proof in Alaska is in the numbers. Only three women — Lt Governor Fran Ulmer, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Gov. Sarah Palin—have held statewide office. According to the 2010 census data, women make up 48.3 percent of Alaska’s population, yet out of 60 state legislators, only 17 are women.

So far, the only female candidate running for statewide office in 2014 is Alaska state Sen. Lesil McGuire. She is running for lieutenant governor. Depending on how redistricting plays out in the courts, nearly all of the current female legislators may have to run again for their seats.

And new research might help them with their campaign ads. Over the years, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation has done an incredible amount of research on women’s campaigns. One of its findings was that women candidates pay a higher price than their male counterparts for running negative ads.

Given that, how do women draw a contrast with their opponents without paying a higher price at the polls?

The foundation put that question to a team led by Chesapeake Beach Consulting and Lake Research Partners, which is run by Celinda Lake, the pollster and key campaign strategist for U. S. Sen. Mark Begich’s campaign.

The new research, developed through a series of focus groups, offers evidence-based guidance. Key findings include:

  • It works for a woman candidate to represent herself in an ad. Voters react more favorably to a woman candidate confidently speaking for herself and her positions.

  • Voters respond well to negative ads when they feel the negative message is subtle and is delivered by a real person, as opposed to the candidate.

  • Flipping conventional wisdom on its head, voters appreciate humor from a woman in a negative ad. Humor also added an element of the unexpected, which helped voters remember the ad.

  • Voters want to hear what a candidate will do for them. Voters respond more favorably to negative ads if the candidate offers them a positive message about her plans, in addition to contrasting with her opponent.

  • Women voters, especially, want to see and hear from a woman candidate because they “hoped” and “expected” more from women candidates.

  • The most convincing ads are those in which a real person shares his or her story. Voters feel this helps the candidate’s platform become more relatable and authentic and makes the negativity of the ad seem more subtle. This seems particularly powerful from women candidates whom voters believed would be more likely to bring the voice of real people to the dialogue and would be more in touch with real people’s lives.

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