Following the November 2015 Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks, and the more recent bombings in Brussels and Pakistan, terrorism threats and national security issues have become one of the most talked about topics in the presidential elections. While Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have hardened their rhetoric and called for bans on Muslim immigrants, increased vigilance in Muslim neighborhoods, and torture for extracting information, Hillary Clinton has maintained a starkly different approach. In her speeches, she has called for reinforcing alliances with other nations, asked for help from the technology sector in fighting terrorism, and expressed sympathy for the victims of the attacks. Her calm, reasoned tone is in sharp contrast to the provocative and incendiary language used by the Republican candidates. This raises the question whether Clinton’s strategy of restraint is useful.
Research on women in politics indicates that when national security issues are at the forefront, voters tend to prefer men candidates to women. As Holman et al. (2016) find, voters show most preference for male Republican leadership and least preference for female Democratic leadership. Anxiety and fear about terrorism encourages voters to employ a gender stereotypic lens to evaluate candidates. According to the gender stereotypes literature, the office of the president is generally considered “male” because historically no woman has ever held the office, and issues such as national security, foreign policy, economy and employment that are associated with the office, are considered male areas of expertise. During times of fear and uncertainty, voters tend to prefer the agentic qualities associated with men than the empathic qualities associated with women.
The Republican Party has often used these stereotypes to their advantage. For example, in the 2014 midterm elections in Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina, the party aired about 60 terrorism related ads, targeted mostly at women Democrat rivals. Similarly, Trump’s ad juxtaposed images of Russian president Vladimir Putin behaving in a threatening manner with Clinton’s femininity to indicate that Clinton is weak and unfit for office solely because of her gender.
Research indicates that women candidates suffer a “double bind” that hinders them from employing toughness in their speech or actions. When women act tough, they’re punished for violating gender stereotypes, but when they hold off on the tough talk, they’re perceived as incompetent.
So far Clinton’s strategy has been to portray herself as a viable alternative to the Republican candidates. Unlike the typical woman candidate, she is a well-known political figure who has held office, established her foreign policy credentials, and enjoys the mainstream media’s support. In her speeches she has been promoting her experience and foreign policy credentials, criticizing her rivals from the Republican Party without using provocative rhetoric, and focusing on finding solutions. This could be an effective strategy in combating stereotypes. Indeed, recent research indicates that gender stereotypes do not hurt the electoral chances of women candidates as much as indicated in previous studies. While the GOP is embroiled in public shows of sexism and irresponsible bluster, voters could perceive Clinton as a welcome alternative. Terrorism and the GOP’s gender war could translate into a win for Clinton.
About the Author: Newly Paul is Assistant Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University. Her research focuses on political advertising, political communication, and race and gender in politics. Her website is newlypaul.weebly.com.