What I am looking for in the first primary debate

Amanda Hunter | Aug 22, 2023


It feels like summer is winding down. The sun is setting earlier at night. In many areas, students are returning to school. And the first primary debate of 2023 is this week. Former Governor and Ambassador Nikki Haley will be the only woman on the debate stage.

As we look toward the first debate, here are some aspects I’ll be looking for, based on 25 years of BLFF research:

  • Appearance. We know from our research that voters scrutinize women’s appearance much more than their male counterparts. Voters want to see women look neat and put together, but not so well-groomed that it looks like they may spend all their time and money on their appearance. In our research, people have reacted negatively to small imperfections, like wrinkles on a jacket collar or frizzy hair.
  • Confidence is key. Showing confidence is essential for women candidates. If voters do not think a woman is confident, they will not like her. At a live event like a debate, voters assess a woman’s confidence in 30 seconds or less. So, Governor Haley will need to project confidence as soon as she enters the stage.
  • Qualifications. Although Governor Haley is one of several former governors in the group, and as a former Ambassador, she arguably has more experience than some of her counterparts. However, she will likely have to do more to prove to voters that she is qualified. Our research shows that while men can simply release their resumes, voters need more evidence that women are up to the job of being chief executive. Our research shows that while men can tell, women must show they have experience. People will want examples of what Haley accomplished in her prior roles.
  • Likeability. Likeability is a non-negotiable for women candidates—voters say they will not vote for a woman if they don’t like her, even if they think she is qualified. Governor Haley will have to walk a tightrope that so many women leaders at a high level do, show that she is strong enough to be Commander in Chief, but not seem so tough that she alienates voters and is unlikeable.
  • Sexism. If someone says something sexist to Governor Haley, our research shows that voters will expect her to address it on the spot. Letting a sexist comment or action go can telegraph weakness to voters. They want to see women address sexism in a “calm and professional” manner, and link back to their larger value system.
  • Risks of going negative. Although contrasting with opponents is part of any political campaign, women can pay a price with voters if they seem to be going too negative. Our research shows that voters expect women to “rise above” fighting and negativity in politics, and they expect women to be more trustworthy and moral than their male counterparts.

In addition to simply having strong answers for debate questions, women candidates must be aware of their appearance, tone of voice, and facial expressions. And know from our research that women voters are critical to a successful election. Our friends at AIT put together a helpful policy guide, summarizing the publicly stated policy positions of the GOP primary candidates, based on issues we have seen are important to women voters. I will be watching closely to see how Governor Haley navigates these pressures. To tune in, catch the debate on Wednesday, 9-11 p.m. ET on Fox News, live from Milwaukee, co-moderated by anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

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