Last summer, shortly after Michele Bachmann stood in her childhood home of Waterloo, Iowa, to announce her run for president, I predicted that her campaign would follow a new playbook for women candidates capitalizing on women's unique appeal to voters.
Women, I argued, can actually have an advantage over their male competitors by presenting themselves as "360-degree candidates." Indeed, Barbara Lee Family Foundation research shows that by using all of their experiences and expertise, women candidates have a broader range of opportunities than men to connect with voters. Women can be more "relatable," talking about bread-and-butter issues while still being "tough and policy-minded."
But in the course of her campaign, Bachmann largely ignored the fact that she was the only woman in the Republican field. In the end, she failed to capitalize on her gender as an asset or to take advantage of key changes in voter attitudes towards women candidates. Ultimately, Bachmann fell prey to many of the chronic challenges facing women's campaigns for executive office.
Starting out, Bachmann seemed poised to take advantage of the changing landscape for women candidates, positioning herself as not just a candidate, but as a woman running for office. After her runaway performance in the first GOP debate in New Hampshire, Newsweek's Howard Kurtz predicted that Bachmann's "gender and sharp tongue virtually guarantee she will stand out in a sea of blandness." She staged her official campaign kickoff announcement at the former home of the Waterloo Women's Club, where she delivered a speech that referenced her multiple roles as wife, mother, and family business owner. In August, Bachmann was the first woman candidate to win the Ames Iowa Straw Poll.
But soon her campaign began to shy away from direct or indirect references to gender. Bachmann sidestepped questions about whether a Newsweek cover and a debate question were sexist, and no longer shared her own experiences in a way that showed voters that she could connect with them. Ultimately, this meant that her campaign failed to maximize what could have been her greatest strength.
Likeable... but not enough
There are other ways in which Bachmann's campaign was likely affected by gender. In our 2010 research, likeability emerged as the single biggest predictor of votes for women, but Bachmann's likeability suffered as her campaign progressed. As one post-mortem analysis of her campaign noted, she became less and less relatable to Iowans, earning a reputation as a "diva" who left campaign appearances early or missed them altogether. When she did show up, campaign staff shooed voters away, preventing them from approaching or talking to her.
Although a December Des Moines Register poll [pdf] of prospective caucusgoers showed that ultimately Bachmann scored somewhat well on measures of likeability, she didn't outperform the men in the field on this quality. And as a woman who scored well below her male competitors on other key qualities, likeability was key.
A January CNN entrance poll also indicates that Iowa voters didn't buy Bachmann's credentials on the economy, which continues to be the most important issue for voters this election cycle. The overwhelming majority of Iowa caucusgoers in the CNN poll indicated that financial issues were their chief concern, but Bachmann received the second-lowest percentage of votes from these caucusgoers.
This was a missed opportunity. Our research shows that women candidates have increased their credibility on economic issues, and that voters now seem willing to give women equal credit on the economy. For Republican women in particular, issuing a written plan and airing ads on the economy established credibility with voters. Bachmann issued an economic plan, but her ads in Iowa did not focus on economic messages. She also did not focus on her own experience as a small business owner, which could have provided a powerful economic message for her campaign.
The "s" words
Like so many women candidates before her, Bachmann also struggled with staffing. Her top advisors -- mostly men -- frequently disagreed with each other and with Bachmann on campaign strategy. She suffered high-profile staff desertions, both individual and en masse. And the staff she did have sometimes mismanaged the candidate at public events, made poor strategic decisions, and fed Bachmann misinformation that resulted in some of her more famous gaffes.
Finally, there was plain, old-fashioned sexism. Despite Bachmann's historic win at the Ames Iowa Straw Poll, the state has an abysmal record of electing women at any level of office. Then there was the added hurdle of capturing the evangelical vote, nicely summed up in an email by Rick Santorum's Iowa state director:
"The question then comes, 'Is it God's highest desire, that is, his biblically expressed will, ... to have a woman rule the institutions of the family, the church, and the state?' "
To be sure, Bachmann's campaign faced challenges in scripture and in Iowa. And while our non-partisan research on women's campaigns may have been less useful in addressing the former, it may have helped Bachmann respond to the challenges she faced on the ground with Iowa voters.
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