Politics is Personal: Keys to Likeability and Electability for Women (2017)

American politics can sometimes feel like a popularity contest. Questions like, “Who would you like to have a beer with?” or “But does she smile enough?” are par for the course.

Like it or not, likeability is a non-negotiable quality voters seek in women officeholders and candidates. At the same time, it’s an intangible quality. Voters have difficulty clearly defining what it means to come across as likeable. When it comes to articulating what attracts them to a candidate or officeholder, voters have an “I know it when I see it” mindset.

Likeability matters because it is a key component of electability along with establishing one’s qualifications. This research conducted by the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation (BLFF) looked at two questions:

1) What makes a woman candidate or officeholder likeable to voters?
2) How can one establish likeability and qualifications at the same time?

Likeability and qualifications are the two components of electability that women must consistently balance. Past research conducted by BLFF has repeatedly shown that women face a litmus test that men do not have to pass. Voters will support a male candidate they do not like but who they think is qualified. 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 have to prove they are qualified. For men, their qualification is assumed. Women face the double bind of needing to show competence and likeability.

 The Key Findings:

Voters, independent of their gender, overwhelmingly say it is important that they like an officeholder they support: 84% of men and 90% of women. People who hold strong partisan views, less educated voters, Latinas, and Southern women are the most likely to say it is very important to like an officeholder that they vote for or support.

What makes women likeable in the eyes of voters? There are two key components: presentation and track record. In other words, style and substance both matter. And confidence is key.

Opportunities: Things Women Can Control

  • 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.
  • Voters like informal photos of women candidates engaging with children and in their communities more than photos in formal settings.
  • To show likeability, a woman doing her job among constituents is effective.
  • When touting accomplishments, it works to include personal elements, like why an issue is a particular passion, or how constituents have been positively impacted by the achievement.
  • Voters like women officeholders who share credit with their teams, in addition to taking credit as an individual leader. A mix of solo and shared credit works best.
  • It is possible to convey likeability while discussing seemingly mundane aspects of leadership and managing everyday issues, like sewers and snowstorms.
  • Voters want to see that a candidate is working on issues that truly reflect her values.
  • Voters like women candidates and officeholders who demonstrate a sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously.

CNN Clip

Watch our Communications and Research Director Amanda Hunter discussing the barriers women face on road to executive office: