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Do You Have To Be Manly To Be President?

In this week’s politics Slack chat, we’re talking about masculinity and gender in the presidential race. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


simone (Simone Landon, senior editor): So we’ve talked a lot about sexism and how it’s affecting Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, but this cycle has also seen a lot of, uh, bravado from the male candidates. Who would’ve thought we’d be openly discussing a candidate’s genitalia (I’m of course talking about Donald Trump’s “I guarantee you there’s no problem” in reference to the size of his penis.) What role is masculinity playing on both sides of the race?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Wooh. A doozy, Simone.

leah (Leah Libresco, news writer: This has been the year of no subtext.

clare.malone: This election, particularly on the Republican side, has been a lot more upfront about sexism, gender and, yes, masculinity (see aforementioned penis). Some of that has to do with Republicans’ spinning the race in order to talk about popular American culture being out of touch with traditional American life — the kind of life/lifestyle they think most Republican voters want. That’s a new spin on the culture wars, but it’s also given the GOP candidates ways to talk about being manly men and to have that characterization make them stand in opposition to what they might see as an increasingly “effeminate” culture — talking about sexism, homophobia, etc., in our everyday lives.

leah: Normally, there are a lot of ways to hint at what a big man you are (i.e., Ted Cruz and carpet bombings, or Jim Webb’s literally having killed a man), and this year, they jumped straight to literal dick measuring.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Trump has tried to project an image of strength, and while strength needn’t be masculine, I think Trump’s version certainly is. It’s all about physical action. We’re going to bomb, we’re going to build a wall, and so on.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): But saying you’re going to bomb countries and build walls is how candidates usually assert their masculinity. Trump’s is different — he’s pure id. Much more explicit.

clare.malone: Right, he’s made the subtext the text.

leah: Some of the enthusiasm for Trump’s brash, crude masculinity seems linked to the way authors like Christina Hoff Sommers argue that masculinity is cramped today, starting in schools — where it’s not just a matter of political correctness, but that school culture, office culture, etc., is all quieter, less physical and less welcoming to a certain subset of men. (Personally, I am also up for more recess and more roughhousing.)

maggiekb (Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer): I’ve wondered how much of this is about how you distinguish yourself, as a guy, from the other candidate when that other candidate is a woman. Whether the hyper-masculinity is growing out of a place of knowing, essentially, that you’re running against Hillary Clinton.

natesilver: Yeah, this is hard to prove, but my sense is that the chest-pounding / dick-measuring part of the GOP race doesn’t have all that much to do with Hillary Clinton.

simone: Why not?

natesilver: For one thing, because she’s not the president yet — or even officially the Democratic nominee yet — and the outgoing president typically has a much bigger role on the other party’s psyche than the incoming one. I mean, the racism has also been a lot more explicit on the GOP side, at least when coming from Trump. So maybe we need — dare I say it — an intersectional theory to explain it.

clare.malone: See my above “traditional culture” rant! Republicans see the Democratic Party and the popular culture at large moving farther and farther away from what they’re used to, including how men are viewed — that’s why things like transgender bathrooms have become such an issue, for instance.

harry: I think it has more to do with society overall. A ridiculously high 68 percent of Trump supporters say society is becoming too soft and feminine. Cruz and Kasich supporters come in with 57 percent and 52 percent, respectively. Now compare those numbers with the Democratic side, where Sanders supporters were slightly less likely than Clinton supporters to say that (28 percent vs. 31 percent).

maggiekb: Interestingly, Nate, there’s been some academic literature describing Obama as a unisex candidate — that part of what worked for him was the ability to hit both ends of the stereotype spectrum when he needed to.

simone: Then how do we explain the “Bernie Bro” phenomenon on the Democratic side? Sanders is quite literally running against Clinton, and his supporters have been accused of sexism. But is anyone accusing Sanders of being masculine?

leah: Well, there’s a kind of masculinity he does fit into (the cranky old uncle model). And those behaviors (the loudness, the aggressiveness) play very differently for a man than a woman. There’s a lot that’s treated as adorable from him that wouldn’t pass from Clinton.

clare.malone: Trump would likely try to paint Sanders as just a batty old radical. I don’t think he could do an emasculation spin on Sanders.

natesilver: Behavior changes whenever you get groups of men together. Especially young men, and especially on the internet.

harry: I don’t particularly think of the Bernie Bro as masculine.

simone: You think they’re “betas,” harry?

harry: Here’s the No. 1 image for Bernie Bro

clare.malone: Beta males can be very masculine! I tend to think that alpha/beta split refers more to competitive drive and industry than masculinity — e.g., Aidan from “Sex and the City” — beta. Yeah, I said it. Mr. Big = alpha.

maggiekb: But he’s also masculine in that sweaty, building-stuff way — Aidan is. And Mr. Big is feminine in the sense of tailoring, fine dining, haircuts.

harry: John on “Sex and the City” was quite masculine. Aidan was a little punk whose best role was in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

simone: This is digressing. OK, so some of the candidates are flirting with hyper-masculinity. Do we have any evidence that voters care? Are men (or women) motivated to go to the polls by manliness?

leah: It’s hard to say — there aren’t any studies I’ve found that look at how persuasive direct allusions to genitalia are! Who would have thought we needed those numbers.

maggiekb: There is pretty good evidence that, depending on the year, perceived masculinity can matter a lot to voters. But the catch is that bit about the year. Because we attach gender stereotypes to issues.

natesilver: I’ll remind people here that Donald Trump is one of the most unpopular politicians in the history of the American republic.

harry: Thanks, Nate. I can say there is some evidence that women voters on the Democratic side are more likely to vote for Clinton when they believe they have been personally discriminated against.


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maggiekb: So here’s a question: Is Trump masculine? We’re coming at this from the assumption that he represents aggressive masculinity, but is that really true? Are voters perceiving Trump as masculine?

clare.malone: I think they are — part of the way that he’s escaped the coddled rich boy mold is by being a blustering male type, talking about his sexual exploits, talking about his risk-taking — he’s unpretentious in that way. He reads as a guy in the locker room.

natesilver: They perceive Trump as authentic and that Trump uses displays of masculinity to assert his authenticity.

simone: And setting himself up in opposition to “Lil Marco” Rubio.

natesilver: Rubio is also an interesting figure in the GOP race, in my view.

simone: Was, Nate, was.

leah: He hasn’t released his delegates!

clare.malone: In, but just on a technicality (that’s what she said).

harry: I don’t see Trump as masculine, but that’s because my view of masculinity doesn’t mean “macho.” Rubio, on the other hand, along with Jeb Bush (to a greater extent), wanted to talk about issues. Rubio found that wasn’t working and went the Trump route. He found that perhaps there was more behind Trump’s support than dirty language.

natesilver: But remember that Rubio’s boyish looks worked against him. Rubio is actually about the same age as Cruz, but voters were much more likely to say that he was too young to be president. Republicans were also making a lot of implicit comparisons between Rubio and Obama, however, another young-looking guy.

simone: And non-white guy.

natesilver: Wait, now I have a theory about Bernie, though. The fact that he’s a little rumpled, rough-around-the-edges — is that also a reaction to Obama in some way?

clare.malone: As the more authentic revolutionary, Nate? Yeah, maybe.

leah: Again, it’s hard to pin down what masculinity is in order to research it. Boyish looks are actually one of the things we do have numbers on, and the numbers aren’t good for Rubio or men who look like him. Researchers have shown people pictures of candidates running in gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races and asked them to pick the one who looked more competent after seeing both for a split second. The one perceived as more competent tended to win way more often than chance. And “competent” tends to equal conventionally masculine features (strong jaw, etc.), not Rubio’s younger looking, rounder face. Just looking at that perceived competence predicted 69 percent of gubernatorial races and 72 percent of senatorial ones, according to a 2007 paper.

clare.malone: We’ve all been conditioned in certain ways — and even if you’re down with feminism and up on the correct way to address changing gender norms, if you were born in a certain year (let’s say pre-1995), you have some pretty ingrained bias you might never get rid of. Those Snapchatting younger millennials, now, they might be a different story when it comes to perceptions of candidates in elections to come over the next decades.

harry: Women make up more than 50 percent of the electorate in the general election. If Trump pulls any of the stuff he pulled in the primary, it will come across far different. The reason? Because of the way we view gender roles.

clare.malone: Trump, if he’s the nominee against Clinton, is going to inspire a lot of Democratic women to get out there and vote just on the basis of the Howard Stern transcripts alone.

maggiekb: He might inspire some Republican women to get out and vote … for Clinton

clare.malone: Or stay home, which ain’t great either.

simone: But will Trump inspire men to get out there and vote? I guess what I’m trying to get at is whether we can also talk about men as an identity/interest group in the way we often talk about women and racial and ethnic minorities. Seems like you guys (and gals) are saying the answer is no, or at least as we’ve seen so far in voter behavior? And maybe that tells us something about the supposed cohesiveness of those other supposed identity groups.

maggiekb: That’s a really interesting point, Simone. I was thinking about that after looking at some surveys of voter interest in certain issues. Like this one:

slack chat masculinity

We talk about things like education as being a woman’s issue. We don’t talk about taxes as being a man’s issue.

clare.malone: I’ve talked to a lot of Republican women who say they don’t like to be pigeonholed as “women voters.” They’re concerned with the corruption of the political establishment, or whatever their particular issue of concern may be — there’s not a great perception of “feminism” in a lot of corners of the GOP, because there’s a notion that it makes women one-dimensional members of the electorate. Which is, of course, not the case on either side of the aisle — women, like men, contain multitudes when it comes to motivations and their politics.

leah: Plus, abortion access, which is traditionally treated as a get-out-the-vote issue for women, is actually polarizing — there are a lot of pro-life women voters.

maggiekb: If there’s one thing that’s moving us more toward men as a special interest group, rather than the default, it is the focus, in this election, of framing Trump’s supporters in the white, blue-collar, angry man category. So maybe that’s the new soccer mom?

natesilver: There’s definitely a sense in which gender blends into other types of political identity — more so than race does, frankly. To put this in somewhat abstract terms, if you run a big logistic regression analysis with a bunch of characteristics that predict someone’s vote, the coefficient for gender doesn’t usually show up as being all that significant.

harry: Well, if we look back at the exit polls in the primary contests, we already see some backlash against Trump with women. In some states, Trump gets about an equal percentage of the male and female vote (e.g., Wisconsin). But in many states, there’s a large difference. South Carolina (7 percentage points), Alabama (16 percentage points), Arkansas (6 percentage points), Georgia (10 percentage points), Massachusetts (6 percentage points), Oklahoma (9 percentage points). Shall I go on?

clare.malone: moar polls.

simone: How does that bode for the general?

harry: These splits are roughly equivalent to Romney’s split between male and female voters in the 2012 general election. If Trump is already doing relatively poorly among Republican women, then how well can he do when he faces non-Republican women who tend to be more Democratic? Indeed, Trump trails Clinton by 12 percentage points among married women in a new poll. Romney won married women by 7 percentage points in 2012.

maggiekb: I feel like trying to talk about the “male vote” and “male voters” here really exposes some of the inherent flaws in talking about “female voters” and the “female vote” as one block, per leah.

simone: So does Clinton’s position in the race (and let’s not forget Carly Fiorina on the GOP side) somehow change the game going forward? Whether she wins the nomination or even the presidency, are we in for a big shift in how we think about candidates and gender?

leah: Well, now I get to talk about my all-time favorite natural experiment. In India, different villages were randomly assigned to be run by women (only women were allowed to be candidates in the elections), and that meant researchers could test how much being governed by a woman can shake up people’s preferences for male and masculine leaders.

In places that were forced to have women leaders, folks still preferred men explicitly, but their ratings of how competent women were went up. And, once they’d been forced to have women twice, they were significantly more likely to elect women in open elections.

So, after a couple of women presidents, we might trust women more. Yay?

clare.malone: Oy.

maggiekb: I love this study, Leah! I mean, I don’t love the outcome. But it’s fascinating.

I was also really struck, in trying to research this, how much of the science of gender and elections is about femininity/women and elections. We can have a conversation about the science of women and politics and never really talk about men or male candidates much, but we can’t do that the other way around. Male/masculinity is in some ways the assumed default, and we’re doing research on what happens when we diverge from that norm, but there’s not a lot of research on what the norm means. Whether the norm is changing. How the norm is adapting itself when it’s forced to run against something other than a male. I really want to see that research going forward.

simone: Does that mean we get to stop talking about dicks in 2020?

clare.malone: 🍆

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Simone Landon is a former senior editor for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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