Campaign Essentials

The Likeability Litmus Test

The Challenge

Likeability is a non-negotiable quality voters seek in women officeholders and candidates.

Men don’t need to be liked to be elected. Voters are less likely to vote for a woman candidate they do not like. Women face the double bind of needing to show competence and likeability.

Voters acknowledge that women’s style and appearance is highly scrutinized—and connected to her likeability. In a recent study voters reacted to every aspect of a woman’s presentation style, including her appearance, demeanor, and tone of voice. They volunteer that people are still more judgmental about a woman’s appearance than a man’s. Focus group participants say that if they were giving advice to a woman candidate, they would make sure her wardrobe, makeup, and appearance are impeccable.

Appearing confident is essential. In this study, voters assessed a woman officeholder’s confidence in less than 30 seconds. Confidence signals both likeability and qualifications.

However, demonstrating likeability is not a one-size-fits all proposition. All candidates must stay true to who they are. Just as each woman running for office is unique, so is the combination of factors that contribute to her likeability.

The Solution

Voters, independent of their gender, overwhelmingly say it is important that they like an officeholder they support: 84% of men and 90% of women. There are two key components to making women candidates likeable in the eyes of voters: presentation and track record. In other words, style and substance both matter.

Previous research on women officeholders and candidates showed that many of the attributes and qualities that establish qualifications also improve likeability for women. The two were linked—they rose and fell together. More recent findings show a shift in that conventional wisdom. Some of the factors that help establish likeability do not reinforce qualifications.

Another evolutionary change for women officeholders and candidates is an expansion of how they can relate to voters. Women shown in less formal, relaxed settings have more power than they used to. For example, photos of women elected officials seated by themselves behind mahogany desks—the traditional hallmark of executive leadership —are considered the least likeable. Voters respond positively to women meeting with people and engaging in conversation. In other words, doing the day-to-day work of an elected official.

When speaking with voters, women candidates can demonstrate likeability by showcasing their:

  • Preparation
  • Confidence
  • Listening skills
  • Sense of humor

When preparing campaign materials, think about:

  • Highlighting how the candidate has overcome an obstacle
  • Connecting policies to personal elements
  • Mixing team and solo credit when talking about accomplishments
  • Offering a solution and acknowledging that others may not agree
  • Including photos of the candidate in informal settings in the community