With all the talk this week and during this entire campaign about honesty, transparency, emails and tax returns in the 2016 race, The Fix thought it was time to examine just how gender and honesty play out in politics. Do voters have different expectations for honesty among male and female politicians? And, if they do, what do these dynamics mean for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the likely major-party White House nominees, whose honesty has often been called into question (Clinton for her alleged secrecy and Trump for his many false statements)?
What follows is a Q&A conducted via email and edited for clarity and length. First, meet our experts.
Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), also at Rutgers. Dittmar’s work involves both research on the role and influence of women and politics and advancing women’s political representation and power. Her 2015 book “Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns” investigated how gender influences campaign strategy and campaign institutions. Dittmar has not been involved in any of the presidential campaigns but does manage a nonpartisan project of CAWP and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation called Presidential Gender Watch 2016. Presidential Gender Watch tracks and analyzes gender dynamics in the 2016 race.
Julie Dolan is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Minnesota. Dolan began graduate school in 1992, the election cycle often described “Year of the Woman,” when women ran for and won seats in Congress at historic levels. She’s been studying women and politics ever since. Dolan is the lead author of the 2016 edition of “Women and Politics: Paths to Power and Political Influence.” The book, first published in 2007, was updated in 2010 and this year. A fourth revision of the book is scheduled for release following the 2016 presidential elections. Dolan has donated what she described as a “small amount” to Clinton but has not otherwise been involved in any of the presidential campaigns.
THE FIX: I get the sense this is an interesting time for political scientists focused on women voters and candidates. Beyond the obvious — a historic candidacy — is there anything else that keeps your work compelling right now?
DITTMAR: Women voters are key to any election, especially at the presidential level. They outnumber and outvote men, and have done so since 1980. Since then, there has also been a persistent gender gap in presidential vote choice, with women more likely to support the Democratic candidate and men more likely to support Republican candidates. There is no expectation that this will change in 2016.
However, this year provides an important reminder that women are not a monolithic voting bloc. While we often talk about women voters collectively or “the women’s vote,” there are key differences among women by race and ethnicity, party and ideology, and age, among other things. For example, while the majority of women are Democrats, Trump’s gender problems have put a spotlight on Republican women — a group of women voters often overlooked. How are Republican women reacting to Trump? And will his gender strategy be effective with GOP women (and which GOP women) as we move toward Election Day?
At the same time, women of color — black women, specifically — fuel much of the gender gap that gives Democratic candidates an advantage. Black women voted at the highest rate of any race and gender subgroup in 2008 and 2012, and 96 percent of black women voted for Barack Obama. Will they turn out at similar rates to support 2016’s Democratic nominee? And what strategies will be key to ensuring enthusiasm and equitable levels of engagement?
Last, there has been some discussion of Clinton’s “man problem” in a race against Trump, but talking about men and women’s voting behavior requires historical context. I recently wrote about this for Presidential Gender Watch 2016, showing that Clinton’s support among men is consistent with past Democratic nominees, while Trump’s support among women is well below average at this point in the race.
DOLAN: Absolutely. Her candidacy raises questions as to whether any woman can be president of the United States, whether female presidential candidates can ever overcome voter stereotypes and media narratives that question women’s suitability for the White House.
Clinton is the most experienced candidate in the field, but campaign rivals Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are leveling attacks against her that she’s not qualified for the job. In doing so, they're playing into a long-standing narrative that women lack what it takes to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics. The fact that two less-experienced male candidates are leveling this attack against her is telling. Neither Trump nor Sanders feels compelled to shore up their own credentials or justify their own relative lack of experience because they don’t need to; they benefit from a gendered double standard where men are automatically presumed qualified for public office and women are not.
THE FIX: How much do American voters care about honesty in a presidential candidate?
DITTMAR: It’s not surprising that American voters say they value honesty in a presidential candidate. In fact, you would hope that’s a credential desired in any elected officials. However, I do think there is a difference between what voters want and what they expect in politicians. For example, just 29 percent of voters in a 2015 Pew poll said elected officials are honest. Unfortunately, then, the bar is low.
At the same time, a Quinnipiac poll from earlier this year showed that just 16 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of Republicans rated honesty and trustworthiness as most important when asked to rate those traits alongside other key indicators of vote choice, like caring about needs and problems of people like them, being a strong leader, having the right experience, sharing their values, and having the best chance of winning. That may explain why political scientists David Holian and Charles Prysby found that presidential candidates viewed as most honest in recent elections have not often won.
DOLAN: They care, but it’s not typically at the top of the list of desired character traits. In voting for the president, voters tend to prioritize masculine traits (toughness, decisiveness) over feminine traits (empathy, honesty). Because honesty is considered a feminine trait, it carries less sway with voters than do other competing traits.
THE FIX: Do voters expect female candidates to be more honest than male ones?
DITTMAR: Research on gender stereotypes has shown that women are often perceived as more honest than their male counterparts. For example, a 2014 Pew poll found that 34 percent of respondents believe that women in high-level political offices are better than men at being honest and ethical, while just 3 percent see men as better on the same traits.
These perceptions can be advantageous to women. Some research, like Kathleen Dolan’s 2004 book, [“Voting for Women”] has found that voters most concerned about honesty in government were more likely to vote for women candidates. [Editor’s note: Kathleen Dolan and Julie Dolan are not related.] Political consultants I spoke with in my book talked about women’s “virtue advantage” as beneficial in crafting female candidates’ images and messages. However, opponents — especially men — who are aware of that advantage are quick to develop strategies to eliminate it, raising questions about women’s honesty and integrity whenever given the chance. Those attacks may be more effective against women than men because women are held to a higher standard on honesty and ethics. In other words, since voters are more likely to expect women to be honest, the penalty to women for appearing dishonest may be greater than it is for men.
DOLAN: Voters typically draw on gender stereotypes in evaluating political candidates and tend to punish candidates who diverge from gender expectations. Because the generic female candidate is presumed more honest than the generic male candidate, voters judge a female candidate more harshly if she appears to violate the expectation of honesty. For male candidates, dishonesty is problematic but the critique is muted because generic male candidates are presumed to be somewhat less honest from the start.
THE FIX: How do those dynamics effect Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
DITTMAR: This week’s YouGov/Economist poll finds that Clinton and Trump are rated equally poorly when it comes to perceptions that they are honest and trustworthy. Less than one-third of voters view both Clinton and Trump as honest and trustworthy, while 57 percent do not view either candidate as holding these traits. These ratings may indicate perceptions of honesty and trustworthiness may have relatively little influence on outcomes this year, since no candidate appears to have an advantage. However, if women are held to a higher standard of honesty and integrity, Clinton’s honesty problem may actually have more detrimental effects than if she were a man.
Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” moniker indicates that he will work to ensure that Clinton’s dishonesty is front and center in voters’ minds, contributing to these negative effects and deflecting attention from his own problems with truthfulness. Still, if voter surveys are any indicator, it’s likely that other considerations will matter more to voters’ decision-making in November. That may be why Clinton has focused more on Trump’s lack of qualifications to be president, emphasizing the risk of having him in the Oval Office.
While both candidates would do well to improve voter perceptions of their honesty, they face steep climbs in reversing reputations and will confront continued obstacles in the form of increasing negative attacks on past and present behavior. As a result, they may well have to find other sites on which to distinguish themselves from each other and position themselves as best suited to be the next commander in chief.