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Advice for Women Candidates

June 20, 2011

(Updated at 4:46 p.m.)

Women seeking election in 2012 enjoy more gender-driven political benefits than ever before, a new study by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows; unfortunately for them, voter awareness of that advantage is causing it to backfire.

It's a double-edged sword, said Lee (no relation to the congresswoman of the same name) in a conference call on Monday. Because recent female candidates have been particularly "strong, vivid women," she said, citing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "people see that and say, 'What's the problem?'"

In fact, women remain woefully underrepresented in political office and have dropped from their high-water mark in terms of their representation in both Congress and governorships, according to the Center for Women and Politics.

For the study, which comes in a year that women have stepped up in big numbers to run for Congress (the latest: Nevada Treasurer Kate Marshall, expected to win the Democratic nomination for a special House race this weekend), Lee Family Foundation commissioned a bipartisan team of pollsters conduct pre- and post-election surveys and focus groups with voters in eight states where there were women running for governor last year.

Among the conclusions:

*Women no longer are automatically viewed as innate agents of change - "rare, outside the political process, and likely to reform it when they were on the inside" - as one focus group participant said. Typical was a comment by other focus group members who said that view is no longer valid. "Not anymore. Not anymore," said one. Added another: "Not as much as it used to be, but a little bit still."

*"Likability" remains women's biggest edge with voters, with the fact that many voters give women the edge when it comes to ethics and morals - a tendency that isn't likely to change in the wake of recent misbehavior by male ex-Reps. Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee and ex-Sen. John Ensign. But because they place female candidates on a higher moral pedestal, voters frown upon and penalize women who engage in negative campaigning. "It's such a double bind," Lee said.

*That doesn't mean women shouldn't run negative campaigns, Lee added. "They are necessary parts of the process," she said. But she recommended that candidates "take steps to avoid [the backlash], like having someone else use their voice to record the negative ads."

*One piece of good news for women running in 2012: Women who describe themselves as political independents were more likely than their male independents to vote for a woman of either party - giving women a potential edge with a growing group of voters who don't affiliate with either Democrats or Republicans.

(An earlier version of his post misidentified the race in which Marshall is expected to run. She is expected to be the Democratic nominee in the special election for a Nevada congressional seat)

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