The Political Popularity Contest: Women & Likeability

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 to electability for them: voters are unwilling to vote for a woman they do not like.

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

fiorinacarly_clintonhillary_120715gnIt also highlights the double standards that persist for women candidates and officeholders. Voters still pay particular attention to women’s appearances and feel comfortable commenting on a woman officeholder’s clothing, makeup, and even tone of voice. Remember when Donald Trump told then-Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina that she had a “beautiful face”? And let’s not forget that “shrill” is still a word used to describe the voices of women candidates and officeholders.

It’s not all bad news — there is a clear path forward for women to demonstrate their likeability. The research finding that shows the most progress? Before, it was thought that women had to act like versions of men to be elected. In other words, women had to conform themselves into the preconceived notions of what a politician acted like. Now, the latest Barbara Lee Family Foundation research shows that women don’t need to mold themselves into anything they’re not. Women doing their jobs among consituents in their communities are considered likeable. This evolution shows the progress women political leaders have made.

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 like Clinton and Fiorina in this election cycle 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.