Likeability, Revisited: Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies

Bernie Sanders doesn’t kiss babies. Patrick Healy’s article in the New York Times describes the lack of retail politics in the Sanders campaign thus far, detailing how the candidate doesn’t linger to talk with voters or take pictures after speeches, preferring to speak from a stage with a microphone. Healy writes, “Mr. Sanders is surprisingly impersonal, even uninterested, in one-on-one exchanges — the sort of momentary encounters in which a candidate can show warmth and humility by gripping every open palm.”

This strategy hasn’t appeared to hurt Sanders. In fact, some voters seem to take this as a sign of Sanders’s authenticity, and the words “old crank” are used lovingly by his supporters. His reputation seems to be bolstered by his gruffness as well as his loud and emphatic delivery style. But, if Bernie were Brenda, would the commentary about his demeanor be the same?

In TIME, Belinda Luscombe points out that “righteous anger” is a concept Hollywood has long used to cast male characters as inspirational, but that women who express anger don’t get the same treatment. We see this play out in the political sphere, too. Research shows that women can face consequences for showing anger in public, and that even slight missteps can undercut voters’ perceptions of a woman’s qualifications and likeability. With qualifications and likeability being closely linked, women candidates must constantly be aware of factors affecting their likeability in a way men don’t have to be – their voices, their emotions, their language.

Voters view men’s qualifications separately than how much they like them, so questioning a man’s likeability doesn’t diminish his ability to do the job in the eyes of voters. Likeability is not something men’s campaign need to prioritize because voters are willing to vote for a man they don’t like but believe is qualified.

Meanwhile, women’s campaigns must prioritize highlighting their candidate’s competence and compassion, her ability to do the job and connect with people. With female presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle, we’ve seen questions like “Is Hillary Clinton likeable enough?” or “Does Carly Fiorina smile enough?” If Hillary were a Harry, and Carly were a Carl, would these questions still be asked?

Commentators have said that the presidential election is moving from the “likeability phase” to the “electability phase.” That may be true for the men in the race, but for the women? Likeability and electability are not mutually exclusive concepts.