Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

A Case of More Is Less: The Role of Gender in U.S. Presidential Debates

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

A Case of More Is Less: The Role of Gender in U.S. Presidential Debates

Article excerpt

During the 2008 Democratic CNN-YouTube presidential election debate in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton's coral-colored jacket took center stage as a topic of debate. When the candidates were asked to say one positive and one negative thing about the others, John Edwards turned to Hillary Clinton and said, "I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America, what her husband did for America . . . I'm not sure about that coat." The incident drew sharp criticism from the press. Some, including Politico's Roger Simon, called this moment "sexist and cheap" (Traister 2010). Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus said, "The interchange illustrated the still uncomfortable status of women at the highest reaches of American politics" (Marcus 2007). The 2008 presidential election featured Hillary Clinton, who was among the first competitive female Democratic contenders for the office of president. The same election year also produced the first Republican female vice presidential candidate.1 Similarly, the 2012 election brought twenty female senators to Congress-the most ever in U.S. history. Despite these encouraging gains, politics largely remains an unequal institution.

For example, studies have shown that gender considerations shape the strategies of women's campaigns. Women must strike a balance between campaigning on issues in line with public expectations and appearing tough on issues that are considered male areas of expertise (Huddy and Terklidsen 1993; Kaid 2006; Sapiro 1981). Gender also affects media coverage of women's campaigns (Carroll and Schreiber 1997; Kahn 1996); women are afforded a lower volume of coverage and biased coverage that addresses their traits rather than campaign issues (Dunaway et al. 2013). These challenges underscore a broader democratic concern: underrepresentation of women in U.S. politics.

Exploring the attentiveness to the issue agenda of women voters is one way of measuring electoral representation and reinvigorating the discussion of gender inequality in national politics. Thus, this paper examines whether and how gender shapes the presidential debate agenda. By exploring the issue agenda of presidential debates, we extend the literature on gender in politics to a campaign event that not only continues to attract large audiences but also influences candidate and public agendas (Carlin, Morris, and Smith 2001; Lang and Lang 1978). In considering the mixed results of prior research, we expect that gender shapes the debate agenda in highly nuanced ways.

First, the presence of women candidates in the debate may influence those setting the debate agenda to focus on issues that are traditionally considered women's issues. This explores the possibility that journalists and citizens participating in town hall style debates are working on the assumption that women are naturally suited and more competent than men at handling these issues. Second, we expect that women journalists will be no more likely than male journalists to ask questions that refer to women's issues because media coverage of politics largely follows uniform newsgathering processes and masculinity norms that render women's issues of less consequence to politics than men's issues. We expect women journalists are conditioned to behave according to newsgathering conventions over their gender identity; however, we expect that the issue focus of women journalists differs from those of women voters, given that the press agenda does not always align with the public agenda.

In considering these questions, our paper addresses a gap in the women and politics literature. Although the literature makes several observations about the appeals and strategies women use in political ads, news coverage of women's campaigns, and the strategies used by the campaigns to promote women candidates, few scholars have examined the role of gender in setting the debate agenda. Using an expansive dataset of debate questions asked over multiple election cycles-including every question asked in general election debates-we examine whether women participating in debates, either as (1) candidates, (2) journalists, or (3) voters, influence the issue agenda set in these high stakes campaign events. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.