The Media Is Falling Into A Sexist Trap By Focusing On Hillary Clinton’s Likability

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters outside the Hub Coffee Roasters, in Reno, Nev., Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters outside the Hub Coffee Roasters, in Reno, Nev., Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

As soon as it became clear that the American presidential showdown, 2016 edition, would be between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and celebrity real estate mogul Donald Trump, the headlines began spinning about the impending unpopularity contest.

“Americans’ distaste for both Trump and Clinton is record-breaking,” read FiveThirtyEight. “Trump vs. Clinton poised to be battle of most disliked nominees in decades” decreed ABC news. The New York Post upped the emotion factor, declaring Trump and Clinton the most “despised candidates in history.” The Washington Post dubbed the election “The year of the hated.”

Now, a new poll from ABC News and the Washington Post seemingly illustrates the sense of resignation voters feel toward these candidates as Election Day approaches. Among registered voters who participated in the poll, 59 percent said they view Clinton unfavorably, putting her on nearly equal level with Trump’s 60 percent unfavorables.

The poll is getting a lot of play in the media this week, in part because it feeds so neatly into the prevailing narrative of doom — the idea that both major candidates are deeply unpopular seems to crystallize the sense that many Americans have that the system is broken.


But when it comes to these two particular candidates — and when you step back to consider the context, the history, and some science — the narrative that both candidates are uniquely hated and distrusted is actually misleading.

Donald Trump’s political favorables have been mired in the negatives for decades. In 1999, when he flirted with a Presidential run as a Reform candidate, Gallup polled him at 47 percent unfavorable compared to 40 percent favorable. While this actually compared positively to his fellow third-party candidates, it was far below the favorables of the Democratic and Republican candidates. When Trump mulled a run in 2012, Gallup reported that his public image was “roughly the same” as it was in 1999. He came in at 43 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable — also where his unfavorables clocked in in 2007, when Gallup checked in amidst his very public row with Rosie O’Donnell.

With Hillary Clinton, however, the story is entirely different.

In 2012, Nate Silver crunched the numbers for the New York Times. The pattern is clear: When Hillary Clinton announces that she’s seeking a new position — such as when she declared she would seek the open New York Senate seat, and when she announced her candidacy for presidency in 2008 — her favorable numbers immediately start plummeting, and her unfavorable numbers begin to climb. But once she’s in those positions and is actually working, such as over the course of her Senate career, Americans consistently rate her as more favorable than unfavorable.

Clinton left her most recent position, as secretary of state, with a 69 percent favorable rating, making her at the time the most popular politician in the United States and one of the most popular secretary of states ever. She’s topped Gallup’s list of America’s “Most Admired Woman” for the last 14 years in a row and 20 times total (though the effect of sheer name recognition likely plays a role there).


Why do Clinton’s numbers swing so much? In his 2012 analysis, Silver suggests the roller coaster is a function of how much criticism she’s taking at any one point — which naturally peaks during a campaign.

At Quartz, however, Sady Doyle points out another reason, one that will ring true for any woman who’s ever been told to “lean in” only to be pushed back for being “aggressive,” “pushy,” or, dare I say, “bitchy.”

Americans don’t like it when women, especially powerful women, ask for promotions.

Scientists have shown again and again that people are more likely to associate positive leadership attributes with male characteristics, and to more quickly associate leadership with male names. This plays out in the workforce in important ways. It often means that women are less likely to put themselves forward — research shows that men will apply for jobs when they have 60 percent of the qualifications covered, while women usually won’t unless they cover the whole 100 percent. When it comes to pay, men are far more likely to negotiate initial offers, and four times more likely to ask for a raise.

But when women do gin up the courage to demand their worth, they’re often punished for it. Research from Stanford University found that when women exhibit masculine behaviors — say, asking for a promotion, or pushing for a male-dominated role (the presidency, perhaps?) — they’re ultimately viewed as less likable and thus, less likely to be promoted. And unlike men, when women initiate salary negotiations, they’re likely to be penalized by their managers — again, because it makes them unlikable in a way that it doesn’t for men.

For women, it does hurt to ask.

“Women’s power-seeking will evoke emotional reactions of contempt and disgust and therefore voters will be less likely to support their candidacy.”

A study from Harvard’s Kennedy School put the backlash under a political microscope. The researchers found that when voters perceive women to be power-seeking, it’s likely to evoke “emotional reactions of contempt and disgust.” There’s no such backlash for equally power-seeking men. The study also revealed that power-seeking female politicians were seen as unsupportive and uncaring, a judgement that again wasn’t carried over to power-seeking men.


The sum of the research finds that — from the average office to the highest office — when women ask for power, they’re punished for it, either explicitly or implicitly. And often, this punishment comes precisely because when women ask for power, people find them unlikable.

Considering that campaigning for the presidency is perhaps the most power-seeking move any person can make, is it any wonder that Clinton’s unfavorability numbers are soaring?

We’ve seen this play out with other women who seek higher office. In 2012, Todd Akin attacked his opponent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) for being “very aggressive” and less “ladylike” than she’d been in the past. In 2009, Politico described Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) as “deeply unpopular,” linking it to the fact that she’d “never been shy about her political ambitions.”

Even Elizabeth Warren, now a progressive hero who is often trotted out as the alternative to Hillary Clinton, was criticized for her “hectoring, know-it-all style” when she first ran for Senate. Once she was sworn in, she became so popular that a movement unsuccessfully attempted to draft her to run for president — and is often admired for the professorial command of the facts and the righteous anger that made her unlikable during the primary.

“Women face a litmus test that men do not have to pass.”

This dynamic binds women in a catch-22, because for women, likability makes a huge difference to getting elected in a way that it doesn’t for men.

“Women face a litmus test that men do not have to pass,” research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which focuses on women in politics, concludes. Their research shows that while voters will support a man who is qualified but whom they don’t like, women have to prove both that they’re qualified and that they’re likable before they’ll get the votes.

This effect probably does not explain the sum total of Hillary Clinton’s unfavorability numbers — it’s impossible to tease out the biases from the reasons that people don’t like Hillary Clinton herself. And it’s true that Clinton has taken a lot of hits since she left office with her sky-high approval rating: from the omnipresent email scandal, to continued, fruitless dragging over Benghazi, to the bizarre obsession with her health, she’s been a constant subject of negative coverage (according to a Harvard study, during the primary the media put out more negative coverage of Clinton than any other candidate). Plus, we simply don’t have enough data about what happens when women (other than Hillary) are leading contenders for the presidency — there haven’t been enough, so we’re in uncharted territory.

But covering Clinton’s unfavorability numbers as if they’re unique and endemic to her as an individual, as most of today’s bombastic headlines have, leaves out the whole story — which, if anything, suggests that the ire with which the public views her is temporary, and could have little to do with her actual performance in office.

It’s an effect Clinton herself is well aware of.

“I have a track record. And I’m going to remind people of that. Because it’s not just rhetoric, for me,” she told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press when he asked her about her low approval ratings back in May. “When I was secretary of state, I had a very high approval rating, as you can go back and check. Because I was doing a job that people could see.”