What Does “Likeability” Mean for Women in Politics?

Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and I all had better campaign win-loss records than any of the leading men. But the question was never whether a man could be elected. Despite our stronger records, it was always, “Can a woman win?”

—excerpt from PERSIST by Elizabeth Warren (Metropolitan Books, May 2021).
Ranked Choice Voting
What does “Likeability” Mean for Women in Politics?
Often seen together, likeability and electability is the concept that refers to how a candidate is perceived by a voter and whether or not that voter believes they can win an election. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

“Why doesn’t she smile more?” “Could you see yourself getting a beer with her?” “Do people like her enough to win?” Every election cycle, questions like these become a common refrain when a woman—or more than one woman—runs for office. These inherently sexist questions come with revealing misogynistic expectations in politics, but also have real electoral consequences. 

Women candidates are scrutinized and picked apart based on assumptions about their lack of appeal to voters. This constant debate about electability is detrimental to women’s candidacies and U.S. politics as whole, as it focuses on the quagmire of a candidate’s image rather than their policy positions. Men don’t need to be liked to be “electable”—women do.

What Does “Likability” and “Electability” Mean?

Likability is a key component of electability along with establishing a candidate’s qualifications. Often seen together, likability and electability refer to how a candidate is perceived by a voter and whether or not that voter believes they can win an election.

The electability paradox takes place when voters strategically change who they vote for in order to match what they believe the rest of the electorate thinks. Due to concerns over “electability,” many individuals opt for tactical voting, throwing their support to a candidate who seems to have a better chance for broader support. If a voter believes that a large portion of the electorate is not ready for a woman president, they may choose to vote for a male candidate who they believe has a greater chance of winning.

Ranked Choice Voting
What does “Likeability” Mean for Women in Politics?
If a voter believes that a large portion of the electorate is not ready for a woman president, they may choose to vote for a male candidate who they believe has a greater chance of winning. (btwashburn / Flickr)

Until recently, much of the research surrounding the reasons for women’s underrepresentation in politics has focused the blame of women and voters; citing women candidates’ lack of electability or ambition to run in the first place, and voters’ internalized misogyny—ignoring the norms ingrained in American political life which tells women to “wait their turn,” “smile more,” or “be more ambitious but don’t show your ambition.” 

Rather, it is structural barriers to entry that are keeping women out. If you are not a cis, white male who is financially and socially connected, you will not thrive in the same numbers

The Problem: Double Standards Between Candidates

The media and voters alike have become obsessed with the concept of “electability” and “likability”—but only when it pertains to women candidates. In early 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren clashed after Warren claimed Sanders once told her that he did not think a woman could be president. Sanders is infamous for his surly persona—yet his ability to remain relatable and appealing to many young and progressive voters is as strong as ever. However, Warren, and many other woman candidates, would be attacked for seeming dismissive and rude. We saw in the 2016 election and many times before, and after, that if women candidates are portrayed as unpalatable in any way, the results are much more detrimental than for men

The 2018 midterm elections became known as the second “year of the woman.” There was a huge increase in Democratic and Republican women elected to U.S. House of Representative and gubernatorial seats. Dave Wasserman, a reporter from the Cook Political Report, released a study after the elections which showed that “women candidates statistically overperformed their male competitors by about 15 percent.” Yet even after women proved they were more electable than men, they continue to be scrutinized on their “likability.”

Just two years later, the women who ran for president had to constantly remind voters of the tangible things they have accomplished, such as winning elections, passing bills, starting federal agencies and more. “Look at the men on this stage: Collectively, they have lost 10 elections,” Warren pointed out on the debate stage in January 2020. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women, [Senator] Amy [Klobuchar of Minnesota] and me.” 

Our winner-take-all plurality voting system encourages personal appeals and character attacks to win, as opposed to issue-focused campaigning. Voters rarely, if ever, collectively agree on policy. Rather, the conversation they can agree on are the qualities that make a strong leader. Because of our history and acceptance of our country’s male-dominated leaders, these qualities are seen in cis, white, men. If the U.S. voting system was changed to ranked-choice voting, there would be no incentive for one candidate to tarnish another candidate’s personal characteristics. 

A Solution That Turns the Likability Trope on Its Head: Ranked-Choice Voting

With a ranked-choice Voting (RCV) system, candidates campaign not only for first-choice votes, but also second- and third-choice votes, which encourages coalition-building rather than partisan and personal attacks. It forces the focus to be on candidates’ policy agendas and how they plan to address issues facing voters, rather than attacking and focusing on personal characteristics. This, in turn, forces the media and other consumption platforms to do the same. Because of how RCV systems are designed, candidates and voters alike have found ranked-choice elections to incentivize positive and issue-focused campaigns.

While many individual women and candidates have made historic strides in recent years, significant structural barriers preventing fair and equal representation remain. Public awareness of women’s potential electoral success needs to match the realities that women candidates are as, if not more, successful than their male counterparts.

During the 2020 congressional elections, record numbers of women ran and won elected office, yet men still ran and won at higher rates—not because they are better candidates, more ambitious or have higher qualifications, but because the system was built for them to succeed.

Research has shown time and again that women being less electable is a myth. Yet women candidates are forced to run a second race—trying to convince donors and electors that they are capable of winning. 

Ranked-choice voting will help to correct many of the systemic stumbling blocks women candidates face in the U.S. including the incumbency advantage and the financial disadvantage, but it also has the potential to turn the likability trope on its head. We need to improve our systems and work as a society to focus less on women’s “likability” and “electability” and rather evaluate whose policy and political ambitions will better serve our country.

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Anna Keilly is a spring outreach and advocacy intern for RepresentWomen. She is a senior at American University pursuing a degree in the interdisciplinary study of Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics and Government (CLEG). To hear more from Anna, follow her on Twitter @akeilly18.