Do female candidates bear a special “likability” burden?

Expect to see plenty more whiny articles like this one in today’s Washington Post called “Women still bear special demands for ‘likability.'” Annie Linskey and Dave Weigel note that “just hours after Elizabeth Warren announced her plan to run for president, a question began surfacing about a possible weakness. . .Is she likable enough to be president?” They go on to assert that comparable demands to be likable are not placed on male candidates.

But Linskey and Weigel provide no support for this proposition. Indeed, they provide no comparative analysis of male and female presidential candidates at all.

In reality, male presidential candidates suffer if they are not likable. The very first presidential election I followed, in 1960, was probably determined by the fact that Richard Nixon was significantly less likable than John Kennedy.

Bob Dole is another case in point. Whether his opponent was Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, Dole labored under the burden of being the less likable candidate.

In the most recent cycle, there’s reason to think Ted Cruz suffered from a likability deficit. More than a few conservatives told me that were not supporting Cruz, or were supporting him reluctantly, because there was something about his personality they didn’t like.

Rand Paul may well have had a similar problem. A bright libertarian Senator should have performed significantly better in Republican primaries than Paul did. But Paul didn’t come across as likable — an occupational hazard, perhaps, for libertarians.

Ironically, Republicans ended up nominating Donald Trump who, to my mind, is considerably less likable than Cruz and Paul. But then, the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, an unlikable female.

The lesson? Unlikablility is a drawback, but not necessarily a deal breaker, for both male and female candidates.

Linskey and Weigel also misdiagnose the case of Elizabeth Warren. Her main problem isn’t rooted in unlikability, but rather inauthenticity. I doubt voters would be fond of a male candidate who falsely claimed, to his professional advantage, to be part Indian.

Linskey and Weigel struggle to apply their thesis to the rest of the potential female presidential field. Amy Klobcuhar’s middle name might as well be “Likable.” Kamala Harris’ image is still a work in progress. She may or may not have a likability problem.

I haven’t heard anyone say that Kristen Gillibrand has such a problem. Linskey and Weigel observe that some conservatives are casting her as Hillary Clinton lite. But Clinton had deficiencies in addition to non-likability, some of which Gillibrand appears to share.

Most notably, Gillibrand lacks a consistently held ideological stance. Even more so than Hillary, her positions seem to depend on what is most advantageous to her at the moment. This is an authenticity problem (albeit different from Warren’s), not a matter of likability.

Linskey and Weigel lament that some Democrats are reluctant to nominate another woman in the wake of Clinton’s surprising (and for Dems, unforgivable) defeat. I don’t know whether this is true. The authors quote Ed Rendell who says “there will be hell to pay if there is not a woman on the ticket at least.” If so, it sounds like being female is a plus, not a minus, for Democrats who desire national office.

It would be too generous to call the Linskey/Weigel article an argument in search of evidence. It’s actually an assumption, unconcerned with evidence.

The authors assume that evidence is unnecessary because Post readers subscribe to the cliche. The authors know their audience.

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