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Is Hillary Clinton ‘Likable Enough’?

7 minute read

How much do voters have to like their politicians?

The conventional wisdom used to be that voters didn’t feel they had to like their members of Congress—they’d prefer them to be fighters, adept at bringing home the bacon and protecting constituent interests in Washington. But voters did want to like their presidents, someone they were signing up to watch on television a fair amount for the next four years. Presidential wannabes had to pass the I’d-want-to-have-a-beer-with-them test.

Those days seem to be over. GOP nominee-presumptive Donald Trump and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are entering a general election with the highest and second-highest disapproval ratings of any candidates of either party, respectively. Ever. But while few people worry about whether Trump is likable, Democrats and pundits have spent the week fretting about why Clinton isn’t liked more.

Women have always faced a double standard running for executive office, the highest and hardest glass ceiling to break. There’s a reason why less than 5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEOs, only 6 of the nation’s 50 governor and less than 17 percent of mayors are women: women seeking executive office have to prove that they are capable enough, while remaining likable, an extremely tough needle to threat. Men, generally speaking, don’t face the capability test: most men are assumed to be tough enough and have the experience to handle the job. But women trying to prove their bona fides can easily overshoot and become too tough, and therefore not likable.

“What research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation finds is that likability matters more for women candidates than for men. In other words, voters are much more comfortable voting for male candidates that they don’t like, but think are qualified to serve. For women, likability and qualifications are tied together in voters’ minds. They must demonstrate both traits to earn voter support,” says Kelly Dittmar, a researcher at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “It’s no surprise, then, that we seem to spend a lot more time worrying about how likable Hillary Clinton is than we do about whether or not we want to have a beer with Donald Trump.”

The top reason Clinton isn’t Ms. Congeniality right now, says Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, is because she’s still waging a war on two fronts: Trump and Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders. “There are a group of people who haven’t fully come to terms with the fact that Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee,” Lawless says. “And as long as Sanders is in the race, these voters aren’t going to give Clinton high marks. Once she’s officially the nominee, the overwhelming majority of them will come around and she’ll see a boost in favorability.”

Clinton certainly faced this problem is her last presidential race. A debate moderator before the New Hampshire primary asked why voters seems to like Barack Obama more than Clinton, a question to which Obama responded she was “likable enough,” earning him a maelstrom of outrage from women over the sexist tenor of that statement.

Lawless notes, Clinton has been popular before, though usually when she’s in a supporting role. “When her role as head of the health care initiative under Bill Clinton was a disaster, Americans judged her harshly. When she took a more traditional First Lady Role, and stood by her husband in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky debacle, only then did Americans begin to look at her more favorably,” Lawless says. “Her approval ratings went up after her turn as Secretary of State, again, where she once again gladly took on a supporting role, serving as a dutiful sidekick.”

Indeed, 4 in 10 Americans still believe America would be better off if women and men would “stick to the jobs and tasks they are naturally suited for” according to a recent PRRI/Atlantic poll and half of Trump supporters agree with that statement, says Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College and author of the new book, “Tea Party Women.” “Americans have always been conflicted about women who are too ambitious, and who is Hillary Clinton if not the most politically ambitious woman in America?”

This week New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about Clinton’s problem in a piece titled “Why Is Clinton Disliked?”. He chalked up her unpopularity to the fact that she’s a “workaholic”.

This formal, career-oriented persona puts her in direct contrast with the mores of the social media age, which is intimate, personalist, revealing, trusting and vulnerable. It puts her in conflict with most people’s lived experience. Most Americans feel more vivid and alive outside the work experience than within. So of course to many she seems Machiavellian, crafty, power-oriented, untrustworthy.

Brooks encouraged Clinton to pick up hobbies and talk more about what she “does for fun.” Ironically, the paper had an answer to Brooks’ question about what she does for fun in its business section: Clinton has often talks about how she likes to unwind by watching television shows and movies. Some of her favorites: The Good Wife, Madame Secretary and House of Cards. She’s also expressed excitement for the forthcoming all-female Ghostbusters movie. In fact, Clinton is appearing on Ellen Degeneres’ show this week with the the female Ghostbusters. This, the Times writes, dismayed Sony Pictures, the studio behind the summer blockbuster, because—wait for it—Clinton is so disliked.

To be sure, a lot of people don’t like Clinton for reasons having nothing to do with her gender. She has been in the forefront of the news for 25 years, often associated with some of the worst or tawdriest moments in politics during that time. It’s a testament to her stature that three of the television shows she likes are, at least in part, based on her life. Millions of Americans distrust her and her husband for a plethora of reasons from Bill Clinton’s problems with women to Hillary’s handling of Benghazi and her State Department emails. And, strikingly, those are the targets Trump has gone after.

“Policy attacks against Clinton are not very effective because she has cemented her reputation as a policy wonk. The attacks that are driving up Clinton’s negatives are the personal attacks on her character,” says Michele Swers, a government professor at Georgetown and author of two books on women in politics. “Trump exhibits the art of personal attacks on steroids. He is bringing back the various Clinton scandals from Bill’s sexual misconduct to Whitewater and these all reinforce a narrative that Clinton is not trustworthy.”

Interestingly, Clinton’s response has been to attack something rarely questioned in a male candidate: his capability to lead. Turning the stereotypical gender criticisms of female candidates for executive office on their head, Clinton said Trump was “irresponsible, reckless [and] dangerous.” “I know how hard this job is, and I know that we need steadiness, as well as strength and smarts in it, and I have concluded that he is not qualified to be President of the United States,” she told CNN’s Chris Cuomo this week.

Jay Newton-Small is author of the new book “Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works.” Available on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

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