On the Likability of Political Candidates

by Julie Graber | on 12 Aug 2019

I was reminded of Judith Butler’s work on gender as a social construction while reading Rebecca Solnit’s Unconscious Bias is Running for President and Ella Nilsen’s “Likability” ratings in a recent New Hampshire poll show just how tough female candidates have it in the space of an afternoon.

In Solnit’s article, she shares her dismay with the number of white men who commenting on the “relatability” or electability of the current crop of presidential candidates, “as if these were objective qualities, and as if their own particular take on them was truth or fact rather than taste.” What’s more, Solnit notes, these men share their opinions with a veracity that suggests that their take on this is the only take that matters.

Solnit references feminist philosopher Kate Manne, who recently commented that “electability isn’t a static social fact; it’s a social fact we’re constructing” (thus the Butler reference). We construct what relatable or electable means - it isn’t something inherent in an individual candidate. These constructions shape the narrative around each candidate, often before the general voter can form an opinion of their own. You don’t have to decide who’s electable or relatable - we’ll decide for you.

Which brings us to Nilsen’s coverage of the likability ratings from a recent poll in New Hampshire. Nilsen notes that while Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris both poll strong on favorability (whatever that means), they both received very low likability numbers - 4% of the respondents rated Warren as likable, 5% for Harris, while Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg were rated as likable by 18-20% of the survey’s participants.


But likability, like everything else, is a subjective term - something we construct - vs. a verifiable true or false. And as long-time political pollster Celinda Lake points out in Nilsen’s article, the likability dimension “is a real barrier for women.” Voters will vote for a male candidate they deemed as qualified even if they don’t “like” him - but such is not the case with female candidates according to Lake.

As Nilsen (and Lake) point out, our evaluation of a candidate’s likability (and electability) is highly influenced by gender. Women and men can exhibit the very same behaviors and be judged very differently by others. Our definitions of what is “unlikable” behavior in women may be perfectly acceptable behaviors for men. The definitions are actually different - they don’t belong on the same scale - they shouldn’t be compared.

But in a field of 20+ candidates, we look to data to evaluate the choices. And Warren and Harris are labeled as unlikable. And the label determines who wins.

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