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An Unsolicited Opinion: On Likability and Electability



At first glance, the word “likability” appears fairly innocuous. However, the term has become a major point of debate in the run up to the 2020 presidential election. A staggering number of think pieces have been written about how the term “likability” is used in a political context. Many commentators argue that the mere use of the term indicates an implicit bias against female candidates for political office. Others argue all candidates are judged by their perceived likeability and that attempts to link the term to sexist attitudes are unfair and unnecessary.


The commentators who argue that gender negatively affects perceptions of female candidates point to research that indicates that success and likability tend to be negatively correlated for women and that being likable is more important for women running for office than it is for their male peers.


But is this research definitive enough to disparage the chances of electing a female president next year? Some voters are convinced that it is. I’ve even heard people claim that, while they themselves would be perfectly happy with a female nominee, they won’t vote for one in the Democratic primary because they don’t think a woman can win the general election.


In my opinion, this position is ridiculous, self-defeating, and unnecessarily pessimistic. Yes, research indicates women who seek political office will likely face different and greater challenges than their male peers, but recent polling reflects changing attitudes about gender and now suggests that a vast majority of Americans would be willing to vote for a female candidate for president.


But there is really no way to know for sure how a presidential candidate’s gender may affect their chance of winning the presidency, because only one woman has ever run in the general election on a major-party ticket—Hillary Clinton in 2016.


During the 2016 campaign, commentators speculated about the reasons for Clinton’s low favorability ratings. Some insisted that misogyny was to blame, while others insisted that it had nothing to do with misogyny and everything to do with her private email server. But the  essential question has not receded into history: was it misogyny or was it her own fault?


When Elizabeth Warren announced her campaign on New Year’s Day and then proceeded to drink a beer on Instagram Live, many people found her demeanor to be unnatural and off-putting. A wave of commentators dissected the video, decrying everything from Warren’s tone to her syntax. Another wave of commentators responded by accusing those who questioned Warren’s “likability” of being sexist. And so began the wildfire of comparisons between Warren and Clinton.


It’s become clear that any serious female candidate for the Democratic nomination will be both compared to Clinton and measured against her failings. Given that many hold Clinton responsible for Donald Trump’s stunning upset in the 2016 election and the fact that many Democratic voters currently value a nominee’s electability most highly, comparisons to Clinton will be detrimental to the current female nominees.


While many liberal voters agree that female candidates are unfairly perceived as “unlikable,” it might actually be this judgement and the assumed congruence between “likability” and “electability” that currently poses the most significant barrier to female candidates seeking the Democratic nomination.


In what feels like the never-ending run up to the 2020 presidential campaign, voters should simply try to remember the obvious: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar are not Hillary Clinton.


Accusations that these respective women are unlikable should not prevent anyone from voting for them because likability does not equal electability. I know this is true because many elected politicians in this country are very unlikable.


I understand that many involved in the current public discourse on likability are proud feminists, who ardently support female candidates. But the accusation that the American public is too prejudiced against women to elect one to the presidency is not supported by evidence and serves to foment fear and suspicion in voters mainly concerned with ousting President Trump.


My advice is this: don’t be distracted by the debate about likability. Don’t let the fear that The United States won’t elect anyone but a straight, white man keep you from voting for someone else. I’m not saying that sexism, racism, and homophobia aren’t serious problems in this country, but rather that we will undercut the very progress we seek to achieve if we refuse to nominate a candidate merely because we are worried that their sex, race, or sexual orientation may be too objectionable for some of our fellow Americans.

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