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Trump’s Best Bet: Questioning Clinton’s Competence

Research suggests such a line of attack would align with gender stereotypes.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

As he has in the past, Donald Trump repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton over her alleged ethical breaches at Sunday’s debate. But he also questioned her abilities, insisting again and again that she has been ineffective or made disastrous mistakes.

That’s a harder charge to justify, but from a strategic standpoint, it makes sense: Newly published research suggests that, when voters are evaluating a candidate, competence plays a bigger role in their judgment when the person running for office is a woman.

“Female candidates who are portrayed as incompetent … are at a disadvantage in a way that male candidates paired with the same information simply are not,” writes Iowa State University political scientist Tessa Ditonto.

Her research, published in the journal Political Behavior, suggests gender stereotypes, while not as overt as they once were, still play a role in how candidates are evaluated.

Ditonto describes two studies, the first of which featured 449 people (106 who participated in person in New Jersey, and 343 who were recruited online). They took part in “a simulated campaign for a presidential election,” in which they evaluated candidates in a primary and then in the general election.

“Just one indication of possible incompetence seems to be enough to be damaging, even in the face of a substantial amount of competing information.”

Each candidate was identified as a man or a woman; information on their experience and policy positions was easily accessible on the participants’ computer screens. Six pieces of information — including a summary of their debate performance, and excerpts from a newspaper editorial — were skewed to make the candidate come across as very competent or “considerably less competent.”

After reading as much information as they felt was needed, participants cast their votes and indicated how warmly they felt toward each candidate.

As expected, participants rated their own party’s candidate higher than the representative from the opposition. For male candidates, this approval gap remained high whether the candidate from their party was portrayed as competent or incompetent.

However, for women, it only held up if the candidate was described as competent. Incompetent women were viewed only slightly more favorably than the candidate of the other party. The second study, while structured differently, produced similar results.

“The combination of a female candidate whose competence has been cast into doubt is such a potent combination of cues, that it can even trump subjects’ party identification,” Ditonto concludes.

She adds that, for female candidates, “just one indication of possible incompetence seems to be enough to be damaging, even in the face of a substantial amount of competing information.”

So Trump’s charge that Clinton “has hate in her heart” is unlikely to get much traction, as it goes against stereotypes of women as warm and giving. But the assertion that she is bad at her job could lead people to see her in a more negative light, if (and it’s a big if) the news coverage they read backs up that claim.