Debate Night 2: What We Saw

Amanda Hunter | Jun 28, 2019


It’s official: the number of women who have ever appeared on a presidential debate stage more than doubled in the last two nights. Even with multiple women on the debate stage each night, gender dynamics were at play. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has studied the obstacles and opportunities women face when running for office for the past 20 years, with a focus on executive office, and here’s what we noticed on Night II of the June Democratic primary debate:

1. Leading with qualifications, Part II

BLFF research has consistently shown that women have a steeper climb when it comes to proving their qualifications, and need to emphasize why they are up for the job early and often. Over and over again, we saw this play out during Night I of the debate, and last night was no different. Kirstin Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Marianne Williamson each took opportunities to showcase their qualifications to voters tonight.

2. The importance of authenticity

Women have the opportunity to be 360- degree candidates, using all of their expertise, background, and personal experiences to connect with voters. Sharing personal or emotional stories would have likely been discouraged upon years ago, but many women candidates in the 2018 midterms were successful while running as their authentic selves. Kamala Harris, in particular, used the whole of her experiences to connect with voters last night.

3. Strength v. toughness

Women used to have to prove they were “tough,” a characteristic steeped in masculine gender norms. That dimension has shifted in recent years. Now, it’s more important for women candidate to project strength, an easier task. Yesterday night, the women on the stage stood up for themselves and each other; confidently interjected points when necessary; and contrasted with their opponents, something that can be especially difficult for women candidates. Watching multiple women on the debate stage is helping to establish for voters what “strength” looks like in women candidates.

With the first debate of the primary season over, it will be interesting to monitor the media coverage of the women candidates. Here’s some things to watch out for.

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