Afghanistan, Rwanda and 68 other countries of the world -- many of them emerging democracies -- have more women in their elected legislatures than the United States. In a democracy as seasoned as ours, it should be impossible that women can make up more than half the population but win less than a fifth of the seats in Congress.
While significant change will take time and effort, our nonpartisan organization, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, is studying new messages that women can use to break through to voters and earn their much-needed support.
According to our new poll, the American voter wants to hear more than the often-used arguments that women have the right priorities and are less partisan than men. Our research shows that those messages had half the persuasive power compared to messages that focus on women as in touch with real-world problems such as grocery prices and health care bills. Similarly, about 60 percent of voters believe that Congress needs to be more diverse by including more women, minorities and younger politicians. About a third of respondents felt intensely, considering this a "very convincing" position.
Both undercurrents of the voting populace are huge assets to female candidates this year, who generally come from more diverse backgrounds and can draw from their personal experiences as the balancers-of-the-checkbook.
Part of the task ahead is finding issues that work for women candidates. In our poll of likely voters in key states, we saw that women score significant points when they position themselves as advocates for women's health and birth control -- an issue area that an extraordinary 78 percent of voters say they are familiar with. Our study provided an in-depth look at younger women voters and found that they, in particular, appreciate candidates who grasp this issue.
That strength should help women candidates in places such as New Hampshire, where the legislature has passed a series of bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks and other steps to limit women's access to reproductive health care. The issue is certain to play into the gubernatorial race there, where former State Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan and former State Sen. Jackie Cilley are vying to be the Democratic nominee.
Nationally, too, the birth control debate has raged, fueled by events such as Susan G. Komen's dispute with Planned Parenthood and Rush Limbaugh's three-day attack on law student Sandra Fluke, who advocated for insurance coverage for contraception.
If we have to have the fight again, women can make the most of it. "All the men talking about birth control really is, I think, generating this kind of disbelief, and it's really firing people up," Hassan told The Huffington Post. "Most of us -- certainly in my generation -- we all thought this was settled." Our research shows voters are keenly aware of state-level debates that could restrict access to women's healthcare, like the bills we've seen in Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas.
Looking more broadly, an overwhelming majority of respondents to our survey -- eight in 10 -- said qualified female candidates deserve voters' support. The key for candidates such as Massachusetts Democratic Senate contender and former adviser on establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren, will be figuring out just what makes a qualified candidate in the eyes of the voter and translating that into solid appeal to voters.
Women will also have the chance to test the strength of their messages against other women. In Missouri, incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill could face former Republican State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, depending on her primary outcome. In Hawaii, former Republican Governor Linda Lingle may face Democratic Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, also depending on her primary, to secure the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka.
This year has the potential to be a significant one for women in the Senate: 2012 has the highest number of incumbent women up for re-election and plenty of women working to break into the historically male-dominated body.
As we've seen in previous studies, the strongest predictor of whether a voter will choose one of these female candidates is whether that voter believes women govern differently than men. Americans are nearly divided on whether there is a distinction, but presenting voters with a series of messages about women's priorities and the lack of diversity in U.S. elected offices boosted interest in women candidates in our poll.
With careful messaging, women have an opportunity to break through. Six in 10 likely voters say the country needs more women in office -- with two-thirds of women and more than half of men agreeing. While the reasons to bolster the number of women are many, perhaps chief among them is something President Obama himself has acknowledged: Women would get more done. "I think it's fair to say that is almost guaranteed," he said.
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