Women pols suffer image of being 'Ms. Nice Guy' On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

June 19, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- WHY DO women continue to have such a hard time getting elected to public office? Because, a recent study by a leading woman pollster and analyst says, too many voters still think they aren't competent enough, tough enough or electable.

Eighteen months after what was widely proclaimed in advance by women's political groups as "The Year of the Woman" in American politics, women are still assessing the causes of disappointing results in the 1990 elections. Of eight women who won gubernatorial primaries, only three were elected; of eight senatorial primary winners, only Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum was re-elected; of 70 House primary winners, only 29 were elected. Many other women ran and lost in primaries.

A particular dilemma for woman candidates, according to Celinda Lake of the Greenberg-Lake polling organization, is that in being generally seen as outsiders -- a plus in this period of voter hostility toward all politicians -- they are perceived at the same time as lacking the aggressiveness to get things done among the hardball insiders.

"When voters are angry," Lake writes in a report for Emily's List, a Democratic women's campaign organization, "they want someone who will fight for them. They believe politics is tough, dirty work and they want to be sure their representatives can stand up to the world of politics."

At the same time, Lake notes on the basis of focus-group discussions, women must face a widespread disinclination to support a woman who comes on too strong. "Women do not . . . have much latitude to show their strength because voters are not always comfortable with the women who show themselves tough enough to do the job," she writes.

"The dilemma most women face is how to remain close and personal to their voters while convincing them that they are tough." Words aren't enough for a woman, Lake says. "To be really convincing to voters, women seem to have to do something tough, not just say tough words." One consultant recommended "the Daniel in the lion's den philosophy," wherein a woman candidate, presumably in Oregon, was sent "into the logging camps and talked to these big guys in trucks who were angry, who wanted to string up the spotted owls."

Lake's study also concluded that women candidates are held to a higher standard in terms of voters' tolerance of mistakes. One campaign manager told Lake: "A male candidate gets two chances. If you're Clayton Williams (the losing Republican candidate for governor of Texas in 1990 given to sexist remarks and beaten by Democrat Ann Richards), you get 10 . . . a woman candidate gets one, maybe two, mistakes."

Even in the most popular and effective of campaign techniques -- "going negative" -- women candidates are handicapped because of voter attitudes, Lake reports. "At the most basic level," she writes, "no one calls a man 'shrill' or 'bitchy.' "

In 1990, Lake says, "women found the toughest challenge was maintaining their advantage as outsiders, as non-politicians, when they were engaged in negative campaigning, the activity voters see as the most political. Several candidates found that the voters and the press turned against them, even as they successfully scored hits against their opponent. The women could not have possibly won without going negative, but in doing so they lost their advantage of being the outsider."

So what's the answer for women who seek important public office? Lake's report says they must emphasize their non-traditional credentials outside politics, "show they can play hardball and be as mean as the men to prove their electability" but avoid cheap political tricks and errors because voters "generally hold women candidates to higher moral and personal standards."

One reason for the relatively disappointing showing for women candidates in 1990, Lake says, was that "the issue agenda shifted from a climate favorable to women, where voters were concerned about education, the environment, drugs and the peace dividend to a climate where voters worried about the recession and war." Voters generally see women as "shaky on taxes and fiscal issues," she says, and "as weaker and softhearted on the issues of personal security -- war and crime."

Even with a more favorable political climate in 1992, the report suggests continued rough sledding for women candidates, caught in the dilemma of being liked as outsiders in an anti-politician era but seen as too soft to mix with the insiders.

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