The National Women's Political Caucus, a bipartisan organization dedicated to electing women to public office, has conducted a post-election survey of five congressional districts in which women ran for Congress last year. While only one of the women won, the good news is that it is not a liability for a candidate to be a woman and, in fact, when all else is equal, women candidates start with a 3 to 4 percentage point advantage over men.
The survey, conducted by phone a week after the election, also demolished the myth that women carry numerous negative stereotypes that undermine their election chances. On the contrary, voters gave women candidates more positive ratings on seven characteristics: on caring, being effective in office, having strong opinions, new ideas, fighting for their beliefs, understanding voters' needs and speaking to the point.
Women got equal ratings with men on leadership and building a feeling of confidence. The only areas in which they were rated lower than men was in their ability to handle a crisis and in their ability to handle the emotional demands of public life.
The survey, conducted by Cooper & Secrest Associates, a national political research firm in Alexandria, found that the male candidates had "a much grayer profile in the sense that very little is said about men other than they seem to be good people or nice. Women, on the other hand, have a very colorful personal profile. . . . They generally receive more favorable comments in the area of personal characteristics by a ratio of 3 to 1. Simply stated, women who run for public office are viewed . . . as much more dynamic and they start from a more positive base."
The survey was conducted in Utah's Second District, where liberal Democrat Frances Farley lost a very close election to Republican Lt. Gov. David Monson; in the Third District of Kansas, where Republican state Sen. Jan Meyers beat conservative Democrat Jack Reardon, mayor of Kansas City; in Missouri's Ninth District, where Republican Carrie Francke ran against Democrat Harold Volkmer, a four-term congressman; in New Hampshire's First District, where Dudley Dudley, an established liberal, ran against Republican Bob Smith, an established conservative, and in Florida's 10th District, where Pat Glass, a Democrat, was widely outspent by incumbent Republican Andy Ireland.
Jan Meyers was the only woman who won. The survey concluded that she fit the classical pattern of political victors: "she was a good match for this district, both ideologically and in terms of her party identification. She won because she ran on the economic issues and in support of Ronald Reagan. Her sex was not a factor in her election and it probably did not gain or cost her any points." She received more support from men than women.
The survey found that positions on national defense, foreign policy and the Reagan economic program were the most significant factors among both male and female voters, with experience and party affiliation being almost as important. Women's rights issues were not among the top priorities, although 25 percent of the men and 36 percent of the female voters said they were.
More than 1 in 4 voters said they would be more likely to vote for a woman candidate for office as a result of the 1984 election and the vice-presidential candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro.
Both Republican and Democratic women candidates drew support from a new core of voters, including working women -- who voted for women candidates in large numbers -- professionals, young voters and unmarried voters, who are among the fastest growing groups of people in the country. This ought to work to the advantage of future women candidates.
While women made no significant inroads in Congress this year, the results of the survey should provide a measure of encouragement to women who want greater representation for their gender in public life. One lesson of these races is that quixotic attempts in which inexperienced, underfinanced women run for office are doomed. So are races in which women candidates -- no matter how highly regarded they are personally -- hold ideological positions that are far out of step with their district. But the growing demographic constituency that votes for women candidates, the more favorable attitude toward them expressed by other voters, suggests that in time more and more qualified women who pick their races along the lines of conventional wisdom and who run good campaigns can win.