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Madame President: What Will It Take?

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As someone who works to advance women's equality in American politics, Presidents Day begs the same question every year: What will it take for the U.S. to elect a woman president?

It's the same question that first interested me when, 12 years ago, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation began studying and publishing nonpartisan research about women's campaigns for governor. Why women governors? For the majority of our past presidents, the road to the Oval Office has run through the Governor's office. When running for president, executive experience matters.

More than a decade of polling, focus groups with voters, and interviews with candidates and their staff have given us a broad picture of the challenges women candidates face in their campaigns for executive office. Some challenges have remained consistent, while many others have evolved over the years. One thing has been clear throughout: women face more barriers to winning elections for governor than men.

Our most recent research on women's gubernatorial campaigns shows that taking public risks, demonstrating strength without being seen as aggressive, and conveying competence and likability simultaneously are persistent challenges for women candidates. Our research reveals voters' strong and persistent belief that women are less well-qualified or prepared to manage money, particularly in a financial crisis. Voter perceptions of women candidates' economic credentials continue to be a major stumbling block and are often misinformed by stereotypes about women's financial savvy. Appearance, debate performance, and overall confidence are also challenges for women candidates.

Other findings have shifted over time. For example, after seeing high-profile women like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin running in national campaigns, voters no longer see women candidates as inherently novel, distinct, or "making a feminist point." However, voters tend to mistake the visibility of high-profile women candidates for an increase in the overall number of women running for office. Also, whereas voters once gave women candidates a "virtue advantage" tied to being an outsider and therefore not "part of the problem," women are no longer automatically seen as agents of change.

We also have seen a widening generation gap in women voters' support for women candidates. Older women are more loyal voters for women candidates than younger women voters. Younger women tend to vote based on ideology rather than gender, a trend that we are tracking in our 2010 research.

Our research also shows a number of new developments. Independent expenditures -- political ads not coordinated with a candidate or issue campaign -- increasingly use women rather than men in negative ads against women candidates running against male opponents. Women are also used as spokespeople to launch tough charges in negative ads by male opponents.

In an age of reality TV, it also has become clear that voters expect candidates to entertain and perform. This is potentially dangerous territory for women who have to work harder to prove themselves as "serious" candidates in the first place.

Overall, our research shows that while voters increasingly see women as mainstream candidates they continue to judge them differently from their male counterparts. But there is also some good news -- women can take concrete steps to run more successful campaigns. A written economic plan can help women overcome voters' doubts about their economic credentials. Women candidates also can use their assets to their advantage, personalizing issues to convey empathy and demonstrating their inclusive, consensus-driven styles. Finally, building a campaign team that includes women in key positions can boost women candidates' comfort and confidence on the campaign trail.

In many ways, we have only begun to unravel voters' complex reactions to a woman seeking full executive authority. It's a complexity borne out by statistics: as of 2011, the U.S. has had 34 female governors, compared to 2,319 male. We have not yet elected a woman president. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation's 2010 research, which will be published this spring, will shed new light on these numbers, the challenges to women running for executive office, and how those challenges can be overcome.


The Barbara Lee Family Foundation's Governors Guidebooks and other key resources are available online at