07/07/2011 02:29 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2011

A Turning Point for Women Candidates

2010 was a turning point in the Barbara Lee Family Foundation's 12 years of research on women's campaigns for governor. Women last year ran on a more level playing field. In fact, women candidates showed distinct advantages over men.

The foundation has studied and published non-partisan research about every woman's gubernatorial race since 1998. Not surprisingly, we have found that there is a complex relationship between gender and campaigns for executive office. What is surprising is how that relationship that has evolved over the years.

As every voter knows, the 2010 election was the most partisan in recent history. Party identification drove most voter decisions. After partisanship, we found that likeability--a voter's favorable impression of a candidate--was the single most important predictor of votes for women.

Voters found candidates likeable if they were problem-solvers, had the right priorities, and showed strength. This was a change from past years when voters prioritized toughness, which favored men. As one campaign consultant noted, "You know that [women] can manage things pretty well because they are moms and wives. I think that's strength."

The second big turning point in our research was on the economy, which was the single most important issue for all candidates to master in 2010. Voters did not disadvantage women candidates on economic issues the way they have in the past. One consultant we interviewed said that in tough times, voters felt that women candidates understood pocketbook issues and would level with them.

Our research also showed that now more than ever, gender can be a strategic asset for women in campaigns. Women can be 360° candidates. By using all of their expertise and experiences women have a broader range of opportunities to connect with voters. Campaign professionals in 2010 talked about a woman candidate's ability to be "relatable" and "use everything" in campaigns, including personal experience. As one campaign manager said, women candidates "can be tough and policy-minded and still talk to people about [their] kids." In past elections, women were advised to avoid talking about their families in their campaigns. Voters were often uncomfortable with the idea of women candidates who had young children.

In 2000, Heidi Heitkamp came up against this when she ran for governor of North Dakota against a male opponent. When asked how old her children were, Heitkamp would shoot back, "They're the same age as my opponent's kids." While this bias certainly lingers with some voters, voters overall are more receptive to women candidates with young families.

Our research also shows that voters continue to give women a slight advantage on honesty and ethics. We saw this advantage in our first research in 1998, but it has decreased as women candidates have become more mainstream. In 2010, this advantage was most pronounced in races where Democratic women ran against Republican men.

Knowing that women have an advantage on honesty and ethics, male opponents last year tried to knock women candidates off their pedestal by launching negative attacks early on in their campaigns. A woman candidate who falls off her pedestal pays a higher price with voters.

This is a departure from past elections when male candidates were hesitant to launch negative attacks against women opponents. Now they have no qualms about it. It's an enormous challenge for women candidates to defend themselves.

This is especially true when it comes to going negative. Voters penalize women candidates more than men when they believe they are engaged in negative campaigning. They see negative campaigning by a woman candidate as a sign that she is just a "typical politician," eliminating any other gender advantages she may have.

This was a major stumbling block for Libby Mitchell's campaign for Governor in Maine. In an independent expenditure, the Maine Democratic Party accused the third-party candidate of having been a lobbyist for oil companies and for China. Even though Mitchell's campaign wasn't responsible for the mail piece, voters blamed her. The Portland Press Herald reported that voters disliked it so much that it actually worked in favor of the third-party candidate.

Finally, we analyzed the attitudes of younger women voters and found that unlike a decade ago, younger women are no longer a reliable voting bloc for women candidates. In 2010 women ages 18 - 34 said they were interested in women candidates, but that did not predict their vote.

One younger woman from our focus groups talked about electing "competent people, period." She went on to say, "I am having a hard time with [the gender thing]...when I was a little girl I don't remember seeing a whole lot of women and so we have seen that in our lifetime. But at this point it's a non-issue to me."

It may have been a non-issue to her, but it remains a critical issue for women candidates.

You can read the full transcript of our new research, Turning Point: The Changing Landscape for Women Candidates, online at