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Lee: New Messages Can Help Female Candidates

Female candidates for political office could make significant headway in the 2012 elections by focusing on two simple messages: Women are the antidote to the stereotypical out-of-touch politician, and there is a woeful lack of diversity among elected officials.

The American voter wants to hear more than the often-used arguments that women have the right priorities and are less partisan than men. In fact, a new poll from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that those messages had half the persuasive power compared with 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 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 female 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 female voters and found that they, in particular, appreciate candidates who grasp this issue.

That strength should help female candidates in places such as New Hampshire, where the Legislature has passed a series of bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks and taken other steps to limit abortion rights. 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, the birth control debate has raged, fueled by events such as Susan G. Komen’s dispute with Planned Parenthood and the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke flap.

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 affect abortion rights, such as 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 those candidates will be figuring out 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 Republican former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, depending on her primary outcome. In Hawaii, Republican former Gov. Linda Lingle may face Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono, also depending on her primary, to secure the seat of retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka (D).

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 female candidates in our poll.

With careful messaging, women have an opportunity to break through. Right now, women make up just 17 percent of Congress but more than half the U.S. population. We rank 71st in the world — behind Turkmenistan — for women serving in legislative positions.

Yet 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 Barack Obama himself has acknowledged: Women would get more done. “That is almost guaranteed,” he said.

Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

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