Going Negative: Why Women Can’t Act Like Men

With 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!

Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and with that reality has come a lot of speculation about what Hillary Clinton’s strategy for running against Trump may be if she is the Democratic nominee.

16 Republicans have already tried a myriad of tactics to beat Trump, and all have failed. Rising above the fray didn’t work for Ben Carson, and hitting Trump back punch for punch didn’t work for Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. According to Philip Elliot at TIME, Clinton has chosen her strategy: “If Donald Trump is the great boor of the 2016 election,” writes Elliot, “then Hillary Clinton is the great bore.” He believes Clinton will focus on policy instead of passion, and specifics instead of sweeping dreams; he posits that she’ll take this approach because “Americans like Hillary Clinton the nerdy technocrat,” but “they do not like Hillary Clinton the candidate.”

Whether or not that’s true, his argument fails to take into account the role that a candidate’s gender plays in “going negative,” and how people will respond when they do so.

 via Gage Skidmore on Flickr and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

via Gage Skidmore on Flickr and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

That’s not a small oversight; when pundits analyze a woman candidate’s campaign strategy, it’s not enough to just comment on the strategy itself—instead, it’s key to to recognize the role gender plays in forming that strategy.

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation’s (BLFF) research has shown time and again that women running for office pay a higher price for negative attacks, which leaves female candidates like Clinton—who will inevitably have to draw contrasts between themselves and their opponent in order to win a campaign—in a bind.

Voters feel women should be compassionate and relatable, and that those are the strengths they should use to overcome negativity. Because of those gendered expectations, many people penalize women candidates when they come out swinging.

“I expect more from a woman [candidate] than I do a man,” one BLFF focus group participant told researchers, adding that he believes “a woman can have more tactfulness to not stoop to a man’s level.”

This sentiment isn’t unusual, and this is just one example of the unique obstacles women face when running for office. Women candidates are consistently held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, and because of that they’re unable to engage with other candidates the same way men can when running for office.

If they do, they risk being called “the b-word”—and no, Philip Elliot, I’m not talking about “boring.”





Adrienne Kimmell is the chief research and communications officer at NARAL Pro-Choice America.