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Knocking Women Off Political Pedestals: Questioning Integrity Is a Well-Worn Strategy

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The debate swirling about Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren's heritage is maddening. Not because it is a sideshow to pull focus from real issues, and not because negative attacks are just politics as usual. It is maddening because Senator Scott Brown's campaign attack on Warren's "honesty" is not about integrity at all -- it is about strategy.

Having studied women in politics and researched voters' attitudes toward women candidates, we understand this is a well-worn campaign strategy to discredit and knock women off their political pedestals. It is upsetting not only because it is a cheap shot; it is upsetting because it is a tactic that disguises political games as a genuine push for transparency. It is upsetting because it is the pot calling the kettle black.

The ridiculous attention given to the question of Warren's bloodline is reminiscent of Alex Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer, who ran a close race against now-Governor Rick Scott in 2010. Sink looked at her cell phone during a televised debate, launching a frenzy of negative attention that far outweighed that of her opponent's entire record. Scott's previous experience was running a health care company charged with the largest Medicare fraud settlement in history.

Yet, Sink's integrity was called into question over a text message. Is checking your Blackberry now a more egregious offense than ripping off the very taxpayers you are trying to court? (Perhaps voters experienced a bit of buyers' remorse after that Florida election: A November 2011 poll showed 41 percent of voters called Scott's gubernatorial performance negative.)

These types of negative attacks are part of politics. But they damage a long-held advantage voters give women over their male counterparts: The Barbara Lee Family Foundation's research on women running for executive office shows that voters give female candidates an advantage on honesty and ethics. We saw female candidates hold this advantage in gubernatorial research over the past decade.

In 2010, Democratic women running against Republican men for the corner office had this advantage, and it holds true today. In fact, the Foundation's latest research, released in April, showed the strongest predictor of voting for a woman is the perception that women govern differently than men. Voters also believe women are more in touch, another indication they are not typically detached politicians and can connect on the issues that matter in real life, like knowing the price of food and understanding how tough it is to make ends meet.

Knowing women have an advantage in these areas, opponents try to knock female candidates off their political pedestals by launching this kind of negative attack early in their campaigns. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley faced allegations of infidelity to her husband when she ran in 2010, and Senator Kay Hagan combated accusations of attending a "secret fundraiser" with a PAC called the Godless Americans. Cheap shots, indeed.

Senator Scott Brown's campaign has taken a page from this playbook. He called into question his opponent's integrity while at the same time engaging in questionable behavior of his own -- plagiarizing a biography by pulling text verbatim from former Senator Elizabeth Dole's website and accepting campaign contributions from big banks to the tune of more than $1 million, all the while pitching himself to voters as representing the everyman.

This type of distraction from the real issues voters face is nothing new, and it isn't relegated to female candidates. However, female candidates often pay a steep price with voters when they fall off their perch, because voters, especially female voters, expect a female candidate to be different from typical politicians. Our latest research also shows female candidates maintain their advantage over men on honesty and ethics, which ties into their likeability. When called in to question, voters punish women for violating ethics and being dishonest.

Luckily, voters are seeing through Brown's tactics, as Warren continues to hold her own in the polls. People see her for the leader she is.

Instead of manufacturing phony drama about Warren's ethnicity, Brown should stick to the facts and make his case about why voters should re-hire him. Let's break this pattern of hyper-scrutiny of female candidates and focus on what matters -- who the voters believe can best lead.