Hillary Clinton faces a major obstacle that has nothing to do with Trump, Benghazi, or emails


Hillary Clinton’s opponents like to argue that if the Democratic nominee wins the presidency it will only be because she’s a woman. Even Donald Trump famously accused Clinton of “playing the woman’s card,” because we all know women have it sooo easy when it comes to ascending to positions of power.

This argument is deeply flawed, of course, given all of the chauvinistic man babies out there who believe Clinton is less capable of holding the office simply because she is a woman. And now, new research published in the journal Political Research Quarterly helps illuminate exactly how Clinton’s gender could work against her come November.

The short version of the research is that, when it comes to national security, Americans are biased in favor of people with penises—and specifically, Republicans with penises. So as a Democrat without a penis, Clinton faces a unique challenge.

For the study, political scientists from the Tulane University, Vanderbilt University, and University of California-Riverside investigated how the intersection of gender and party affects perceptions of political candidates, specifically when it comes to national security and terrorism—two issues that rank high among American voters in this election.

The researchers chose to focus on these issues because, historically, American voters have shown gender bias toward both—they’ve perceived male politicians to be stronger leaders who are better at handling defense and national security, while female politicians have been perceived as more compassionate and better at handling women’s and children’s issues.

On top of this, voters historically perceive Republicans to carry more masculine traits, which translates to being seen as tougher on terror and national security, whereas Democrats are perceived as weaker in these areas. Thus, a male Republican would be seen as the strongest on security and a female Democrat would be seen as the weakest. (Remember: These are stereotypes voters hold—they are not reflective of actual strengths or weaknesses.)

With this information as a guide, researchers in the current study hypothesized that female Democrat candidates are at a disadvantage when terrorism and national security take center stage in an election—as is happening now—because they have two marks against them: their party and their gender. The authors write:

When a security threat is made salient, such that masculine traits become even more relevant, the Democratic female candidate, who has both party and gender working against her on these dimensions, will still be harmed by male stereotypes.

To test this hypothesis researchers surveyed 1,074 participants, in a sample size that resembled the general United States population. Participants were asked to play the part of voters in a hypothetical gubernatorial election. They were each randomly assigned a newspaper article, which described the State as being susceptible to terrorist attacks or described the State as doing quite well and making progress on education. They were then given one of four election match-ups—Republican male versus Democrat male, Republican male versus Democrat female, Republican female versus Democrat male, and Republican female versus Democrat female—and asked to rate the candidates on leadership, trustworthiness, and general feelings.

After analyzing the data the researchers made the following conclusion:

The evidence suggests that, when terrorism is salient in the news, Democratic female candidates, compared with their male counterparts, may have lower success in primaries and general elections.

Put differently, when terrorism and national security are seen as especially relevant, only female Democratic candidates suffer.

The researchers go on to explain that while male Democratic candidates are typically perceived as weak on terrorism, that perception is tempered by the fact that they are men. Meanwhile, Republican women’s party card makes up for their woman card.

This leaves female Democrats as the odd woman out—and it leaves Clinton facing a hurdle no other U.S. Presidential candidate has faced. After all, the country has never seen a Presidential election that pits a male Republican candidate against a female Democratic candidate—and during a time of imperiled national security, no less.

Despite her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton still trails Trump in several polls regarding national security and terror. A May 2016 gallup poll found that 50% of Americans felt Trump was better equipped to handle terrorism and national security versus 46% of Americans who felt Clinton was stronger. This is remarkable because Trump has zero experience in national security or foreign policy—and yet, by virtue of being male and a Republican (among other qualities), he’s still seen by many as better equipped to handle those issues.

“The stereotype literature would suggest that people may view Trump as more able to handle national security issues, just based on his party and gender,” the study’s lead author, Mirya Holman, told me over email. “This may be particularly important for low-information voters that rely on these smaller pieces of information to replace more complete information about policy and positions.”

All of this research makes even more sense in the context of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Trump focused his entire convention on fear-mongering, the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, and restoring “law and order.” He essentially doubled down on the area in which he’s given bonus points for simply being a man, despite his lack of a track record.

Meanwhile, Clinton focused her convention on “love trumps hate,” with many speakers seeking to humanize the nominee as a fighter for women, children, and the working class—all of which plays up her perceived “female” strengths. As Holman pointed out, when the DNC did get tough on national security and terrorism, the message was delivered by men.

“Speeches like [former Director of the CIA] Leon Panetta’s and [Vice President] Biden’s were very much aimed at establishing Clinton as having the masculine trait and issue strengths needed to be Commander in Chief,” says Holman. “It is particularly interesting to note that she used surrogates—and men—to do so. It may be that her campaign thinks that people will believe her more if someone else says she is strong on these issues.”

Sadly, they’re probably right.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion’s love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

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