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Karrin Vasby Anderson – The Female Presidentiality Paradox

This is a guest post by Karrin Vasby Anderson, Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University

When Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, he presided over what some have termed the biggest political upset in U.S. history. With the advantage of hindsight, pundits and experts proffered myriad reasons for Clinton’s failure: economic insecurity, white backlash against the first black president, a generalized distrust in government, the dubious, eleventh-hour resurrection of the Clinton email story by the director of the FBI, and, of course, alleged failures of the Clinton campaign. Those who regarded the outcome as a strategic (rather than systemic) failure were quick to point out Clinton’s ostensible liabilities: a long, public career peppered by real and manufactured scandals, her contentious relationship with the press, her underwhelming presence on the stump, and—perhaps most damaging—her status as the quintessential political insider in a year of change.

Cognizant of the electoral mood in September of 2015, Clinton attempted to convince John Dickerson, host of the CBS News program Face the Nation, that her gender made her the outsider, saying, “I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president.” Dickerson demurred, and his response is emblematic of a broader reluctance to acknowledge the ways in which women presidential candidates are unique—and uniquely challenged—in presidential campaign culture. Shortly after Clinton’s defeat, lists of Democratic presidential prospects for 2020 named women such as Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris as early favorites, indicating the widespread belief that gender doesn’t really hamper anyone’s bid for the U.S. presidency.

As a citizen and voter, I’d like to believe that, but as a scholar, I’ve come to another conclusion—not that Clinton was the wrong woman for the presidency in 2016, but that every woman is the wrong woman, and will be until cultural understanding of the presidency changes. Clinton was constrained by what I call the “female presidentiality paradox,” in which any electable woman presidential candidate is simultaneously unelectable in a “change” campaign. The effect is intensified when the change endorsed by electors is a reactionary, rather than a progressive, change. Consequently, although scholars and strategists seek to uncover the rhetorical formula which finally will propel a woman into the office of the U.S. presidency, the more urgent work is targeting the beliefs and behaviors of citizens rather than the strategies of candidates.

Clinton’s loss to Trump was a startling political defeat, but it wasn’t her first. After being the first woman to be the frontrunner for a major-party nomination in 2008, Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination to relative political newcomer Barack Obama. She responded by serving as his Secretary of State, a move that bolstered her foreign policy credentials and positioned her for a second presidential run in 2016. Although Clinton corrected many of the shortcomings of her 2008 primary campaign, raised a formidable campaign war chest, secured the support of the Democratic party elite, and was hailed by President Obama as the most qualified candidate ever to run for the office, she nearly came up short again, this time to Bernie Sanders—a dynamic but relatively ineffectual U.S. Senator who was not even a member of the Democratic party. Her victory in the primaries was short-lived, however, vanquished by a candidate who claimed the role of outsider despite his normative race, gender, sexual orientation, and personal wealth. In all three cases, Clinton was positioned as the elite political insider running against agents of change. Her defeats were read by many pundits and journalists not as repudiations of her gender but as a rejection of “politics as usual.”

What that narrative ignores is the paradox facing all female presidential candidates. In an examination of the 2016 Democratic primary, forthcoming in the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs, I theorized the “first-timer/frontrunner double bind,” in which male presidential “first-timers” (such as Trump, Sanders, and Obama) can be viewed as both outsiders and credible leaders. Conversely, female “first-timers” historically have been viewed as pioneers with symbolic appeal rather than political strength. To be taken seriously as presidential candidates, women politicians must amass significant political experience, party support, and campaign funds. Once they do that, their political strength is portrayed as anti-democratic entitlement and their presidential aspirations as a manic desire for power.

The double bind that was a challenge for Clinton to overcome in the 2016 primary became a full-blown paradox during the general election, one that begins to explain why, according to Time, Clinton’s “campaign organization, the data, the polling, all the analytics—none of it worked on Election Day.” I contend that the factors that cast Clinton as a credible presidential candidate simultaneously disqualified her in a “change” campaign. Her electability made her unelectable.

At first glance, this does not seem like a particularly gendered phenomenon, but in the realm of U.S. presidentiality the dynamic is unique to women candidates. Although over ninety percent of U.S. voters report willingness to vote for a (hypothetical) qualified female presidential candidate, only Hillary Clinton has been able to garner a major party nomination, a feat she accomplished only after amassing an unprecedented breadth of political experience. Clinton’s two primary campaigns and one general election defeat illustrate the female presidentiality paradox quite plainly. To demonstrate your electability, you must become that which ultimately will make you unelectable in a “change” campaign: a well-connected political insider with decades of political experience.

In 2016, the effects of the female presidentiality paradox were exacerbated by the type of political change endorsed by the Trump voters. Although Trump’s victory was regarded by many pundits as evidence of the country’s anti-government mood, Trump also functioned as a personification of the reactionary backlash against the nation’s first black president and first female presidential frontrunner. The “change” sought by his supporters was a reinstatement of white, male hegemonic presidentiality rather than further challenge to that centuries-old standard. In that climate, the more credible a woman is as a presidential candidate, the more threatening she is.

Because the female presidentiality paradox will continue to be a feature of campaign culture whenever women launch significant bids for major-party nominations, scholars and strategists should acknowledge its existence and seek to understand its rhetorical dynamics. Clinton’s experiences in two campaign cycles suggest that this paradox is a constraint that cannot be overcome by candidate competence alone, since, for women, electability appears to breed contemp. When asked, as a political communication scholar, what women candidates can do to be received more favorably, I am increasingly convinced that the answer to that question is “Nothing. There is literally nothing that women have not tried in their 100+ year quest for the Oval Office.” The problem lies with the culture rather than with the candidates.

Karrin Vasby Anderson, PhD (@KVAnderson) is Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University and co-author of the book Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture. This post contains excerpts from “Every Woman is the Wrong Woman: The Female Presidentiality Paradox,” published in Women’s Studies in Communication and “Presidential Pioneer or Campaign Queen?: Hillary Clinton and the First-Timer/Frontrunner Double Bind,” forthcoming in Rhetoric & Public Affairs.