‘Aha Moment’

The Gubernatorial Glass Ceiling—and What It Means for Hillary Clinton

Female candidates once had to prove their toughness above all and never mention their personal lives. Now they should show strength—but still be likable, according to new research.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Here’s what researchers have learned in a decade and a half of tracking women gubernatorial candidates: Subtle changes in how voters perceive female candidates should make winning elective office easier for women. Strength is now rated higher than toughness, which used to be the first order of business for a female candidate, and strength mixes better with likability, another key attribute women seeking office must possess. Women are still presumed to be more honest and ethical than men as more women enter public life, but the benefit for Republican women isn’t as great—an apparent spillover from perceptions of their party.

These findings are part of a research report by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation (PDF) geared toward addressing the obstacles women face on the campaign trail and in office. A wealth of information gleaned from tracking every woman nominated for governor by her party in the last 16 years provides the backdrop for a new round of focus groups on what’s changed since 1998, when Barbara Lee, an activist and philanthropist, launched the project. That was the year a record 10 women ran for governor and just two won. Both were incumbents, so no new women were added to the roster.

“It was an aha moment for me and motivated the research,” Lee said. At the time, just 16 women had ever served as governor. That number has since more than doubled to 35, but it’s still a fraction of the more than 3,000 men who have served in the office. Almost half the states in the country, 24, have never had a female governor, and just five are serving today, four Republicans and one Democrat. Asked about the poor showing despite all the research on how to get elected, Lee responded gamely, “We’ve had enough success to keep going.”

Recalling what politics was like for women when the foundation first launched its research, Mary Hughes, a political strategist, said candidates competed on their government experience and professional accomplishments: “Everything else in a woman’s life was filled with peril if it came into the discussion.” Marriage, children, care-giving, a past job as a waitress, anything from the “domestic sphere” was sidelined. Unmarried women running for office were thought too ambitious; women with adult children were preferred, otherwise, voters wondered who would care for the children and whether the voters would come first in a crisis.

A shift occurred in 2010, when a pollster told Hughes it is an advantage to run women for office, as they can manage things better and know more about work-life balance. It’s not multitasking, it’s leadership. Women are more relatable to voters, who can see them grappling with the problems of everyday life, caring for children and elderly parents. “You can be tough and policy-minded, and still talk to voters about your kids,” said a campaign manager in what then was a revelation. That gives woman an advantage, said Hughes, adding, “It’s tougher for men to do with the same authenticity.”

The research done by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation is nonpartisan, and the four panelists assembled Monday at the National Press Club mostly steered clear of naming any specific candidates. But with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run looking more likely than not, it’s impossible not to parse what the panelists said without Clinton in mind. Preparation is key to a successful race, and a handbook titled “Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women” (PDF) defines preparation as communicating confidence, strength, and executive leadership. When a questioner noted Clinton’s campaign slogan in 2008 was “Ready on Day One,” Republican pollster Bob Carpenter said: “Mrs. Clinton has proven her readiness time and time again as senator, secretary of state, and even as first lady, but she will be judged as to whether she’s ready.” Asked what she would be ready for, he responded, “To govern, to lead.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, without mentioning Clinton or any specific candidate, talked about likability. Ninety percent of women voters say likability is very important to them, she said: “They don’t want to elect a woman they don’t like even if she’s qualified.” Most modern campaigns at some point have contrast or negative ads. “Everyone loses something in going negative,” said Lake. “Women pay a higher price for that.” There are parameters for personal behavior. “You can’t cry and you can’t be mad,” said Lake. “You just have to keep the smile all the time—and we all know how to do that—you just have to keep that smile from turning into a grimace.”

No campaign is perfect, and female candidates have less room for mistakes than men. They’re perceived as letting mistakes linger for too long. When a female candidate slips up, she should respond succinctly and then introduce third-party validators, said Carpenter. Asked about the gender of those third-party validators, Lake said they hadn’t tested for gender, but it’s likely the voters presumed they were male.

It’s been more than 20 years since James Carville coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid,” which helped elect Clinton’s husband president. The economy is still the top issue. “You can’t be elected dogcatcher even if you’re a Martian if you don’t have an economic plan,” says Lake. As Clinton appears to be putting the pieces methodically in place for a potential campaign, she will find a more welcoming environment overall but still plenty of obstacles and double standards to remind her of the still historic nature of a woman contending to be commander in chief.