What the VP speculation tells us about sexism on the campaign trail

Amanda Hunter | Aug 4, 2020

Senator Kamala Harris is widely regarded to be a front-runner in Joe Biden’s search for a running mate. As the vetting operation continues, the process has begun to include sexist tropes and attacks on the leading candidates. Last week, a new report in POLITICO claimed that one former politician on the search committee was reportedly upset that Harris had attacked Biden in the primary debates, and showed no remorse. Reports also posit that several Biden allies are trying to undermine Harris, arguing that she’s too ambitious for the position.

Unfortunately, Senator Harris is not alone in facing these remarks. Our research shows that women pay a higher price for contrasting against their opponents, even though all candidates must show how they differ from their opponents.  Voters hold women to an ethical pedestal, and feel that negative campaigning brings women down a level. When a woman candidate does go negative, voters respond better when the message is subtle and delivered by a third party – a contrast from Senator Harris’s delivery on the debate stage.

Women must be especially careful when going negative, because rubbing voters the wrong way can be detrimental to their likeability. Research shows that likeability is a non-negotiable for women candidates: voters are willing to vote for a man they don’t like, as long as they think he’s qualified, but won’t do the same for a woman. Women face an unfair double bind when trying to prove their competency without jeopardizing their likeability. Ambassador Susan Rice, another name on Biden’s shortlist, has endured comments about her smile and demeanor – antiquated criticism which plays into the likeability trap. Throughout the 2020 presidential race, women candidates were accused of being too ambitious and not likeable enough – a sexist narrative which harms women. Women candidates must also balance strength and toughness. Voters prefer when women show they have strong character, rather than a tough political record. Toughness is a difficult quality for women to demonstrate while maintaining likeability, especially when it comes to public attacks.

While all women candidates face these issues, Senator Harris and other women of color face additional biases that white women do not. Across history, the typical VP candidate has been straight, white, and male. As our founder Barbara Lee said, “Of course it makes sense to scrutinize a candidate’s record, but I’ve certainly never seen a man criticized for being too ambitious, rubbing people the wrong way, or not smiling.” When looking ahead to the 2020 presidential campaign, it’s important that we recognize the barriers women candidates face, and celebrate the milestones of women working to make progress in the political arena.

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