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What we mean when we say Hillary Clinton ‘overprepared’ for the debate

Presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for their first debate on Monday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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After Monday’s presidential debate, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd critiqued the candidates’ performances — and ruffled feathers online with an unusual denunciation. “Hillary Clinton was at times, you could argue, even overprepared," the "Meet the Press" host said, "and her opening statement must have had 15 policy proposals within that two minutes."

Clinton promptly supporters sounded off: How is that a bad thing?

Todd’s Trump analysis was quite different. “That was Donald Trump who we've all come to cover in this campaign,” he said. “Very reactive. He was filled with emotion.”

The contrast was obvious: The Democratic contender, Todd implied, clung to facts and figures, while the GOP hopeful showed more raw feeling, frequently raising his voice and declaring “wrong!” over his opponents’ responses. (Trump interrupted her 25 times in 26 minutes, by Vox’s count.)

It’s possible Todd admired Clinton’s showing and threw out intentionally flimsy criticism, like a job-seeker describing their “faults” in an interview: I work too hard sometimes!

But Brenda Weber, a gender studies professor at Indiana University, said the “overprepared” comment carries sexist undertones.

“It sounds similar to the data we see about women in classrooms,” she said. “Students will say a smart and competent female professor sounds ‘overbearing’ or ‘overly intellectual,’ whereas they expect a male professor to be authoritative or actually know what he’s talking about.”

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The bar tends to be higher for women, Weber said. A February study from the University of Washington found that female students in biology classrooms, for example, had to vastly outperform their male peers in order to seem just as smart.

Sarah Lenti, a Republican strategist and former aide to Condoleezza Rice, disagrees with that interpretation of calling Clinton overprepared. Gender, she said, probably had nothing to do with it. "Overpreparing" packs another connotation in the political world. A politician who studies too hard comes off as too rehearsed, too stiff, not authentic.

“If it were Bernie on the stage with Trump, and he had left the campaign trail to prepare, he might have also been accused of overpreparing,” Lenti said. “Honestly, who cares? It’s an accusation that I think any presidential candidate would be happy to embrace.”

Cheryl Carleton, an economics professor at Villanova University, cringed when she heard Todd's descriptor.  Women in business, she said, have long relied on making their work stand out in male-dominated fields.

How could sexism hurt Clinton in the debates? These female high school debaters know.

“There’s this idea that women are more likely to leave, or they have more responsibilities elsewhere — which just isn’t true,” she said. “So, if an employer must chose between two equally qualified candidates, we’ve seen they lean toward choosing the man, who comes off as less of a risk, unless the woman has a little bit more to show.”

Studies worldwide show men tend to think they’re smarter than women. Stanford researchers, meanwhile, write women in leadership positions face more scrutiny than their male counterparts. When women showcase their competence, however, their likeability often suffers, according to the Harvard Business Review.

On Monday night, after Trump jabbed her for taking time off the campaign trail, Clinton addressed the quandary.

"I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate," she said. "And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president."

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