The Political Popularity Contest

8436651954_17d2f51749_zWith the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

Think of the most likeable boy at your high school. What qualities did he have? How did people describe him? Now, think of the most likeable girl. Are the qualities the same? Probably not.

Like high school, American politics can sometimes feel like a popularity contest. And the standards for men and women are not the same. Demonstrating likeability is especially important for women running for office because it is a key component of electability: Voters are unwilling to vote for a woman they do not like.

But, likeability is difficult to define. And when it comes to articulating what attracts them to a candidate or officeholder, voters have an “I know it when I see it” mindset. However, the latest report from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, “Politics is Personal: Keys to Likeability and Electability for Women,” begins to unpack what “likeable” means for women candidates.

According to the report, voters say that displaying confidence, engaging publicly and informally with constituents, sharing credit for achievements, having a sense of humor and demonstrating qualifications for office—among other qualities—are important keys to likeability. Voters also pay particular attention to women’s appearances though, and say that clothing, makeup and even tone of voice play a role in making a woman candidate more likeable.

So, what does this mean for 2016?

In a Democratic debate last month, Hillary Clinton said, “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.” As Jill Filipovic points out, “[…] maybe the problem isn’t that Clinton lacks the abilities of a natural politician. Maybe the problem is that we see many of the characteristics we associate with being a ‘natural politician’ more readily in men.”

Like in many historically male-dominated fields, the ways we describe “good” politicians, or “likeable” politicians, are gendered. For example, “charismatic” is not a word often used to describe women, but it is used as a standard for judging male candidates. Same with “charming,” “assertive,” “passionate” and “ambitious.”

Women in this election cycle, such as Clinton and former Republican presidential contender Carly Fiorina, and women who have run before them, are helping to build public consciousness of what a female candidate can look and sound like. Seeing women on the presidential stage expands the scope of what a politician can be.

The one thing we know for sure? Candidates don’t need anyone telling them to smile.

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Photo courtesy of Asia Society on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Erin Souza-Rezendes is communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.