A Vanity Fair cover. Reporters mobbing campaign stops. Multiple references to “stardom.”
That’s the reception that greeted Beto O’Rourke in the days leading up to and following the announcement of his campaign for the presidency. All this happened despite the fact that O’Rourke is a former member of Congress without a detailed platform, whose main claim to fame is losing a long-shot Senate race.
Some of his female opponents in the Democratic primary, meanwhile, have come out with well-thought-out policy proposals bolstered by years in nationwide office. But to some observers, they haven’t gotten the same star treatment as O’Rourke.
“We have four highly qualified women senators all from incredibly different backgrounds, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re not getting the same traction and enthusiasm in the media as the male candidates,” says Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works on women’s representation in politics.
It’s difficult to measure media coverage, and some research suggests that media sexism against female candidates is overstated. So I decided to investigate two questions: First, is O’Rourke actually getting more attention than his female primary opponents? And second, is gender the reason why?
The answer to the first question is yes, at least by one measure. The answer to the second is more complicated.
In her research on women running for Congress, University of Virginia political science professor Jennifer Lawless has found that female candidates actually face no systematic bias at the polls or in fundraising. But, she says, “The perception out there is that neither of those things is true.” Americans still think a woman can’t win, even if that’s not true — and four years after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, that perception could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Who gets more attention?
It’s not easy to quantify “attention” in politics today — as Vox’s Sarah Kliff has pointed out, campaign coverage now happens on Twitter, Facebook, and a variety of digital news sites, as well as in more traditional media. But according to Lawless, coauthor of the 2016 book Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, the best way to measure media coverage is to look at which sources people actually rely on for election news.
In the case of the 2016 presidential election, those sources were TV networks, according to a Pew survey. The top source of campaign news for all voters was Fox News, followed by CNN. For Clinton voters, who are the ones most likely to vote in the Democratic primary, the top two sources were CNN and MSNBC.
So, at least according to Lawless, the best way to study which candidate is getting the most attention would be by watching the news — specifically Fox, CNN, and MSNBC.
Luckily, FiveThirtyEight has done just that. Using the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive and the GDELT project’s Television Explorer, FiveThirtyEight reporters Dhrumil Mehta and Oliver Roeder looked at what percentage of coverage on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox mentioned each of the Democratic candidates in the days before and after they announced their candidacy.
They found that O’Rourke and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) “saw dramatic, mountainous peaks in mentions immediately following their announcements, and in some cases still days after.” Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) “saw more modest bumps.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), meanwhile, only got small spikes in attention after they announced.
Of course, the campaign is just beginning, and FiveThirtyEight’s comparison of announcement attention is just a snapshot of ongoing coverage. But one thing is clear — at the outset of their campaigns, O’Rourke and Sanders got more attention from Americans’ main sources of campaign news than their female counterparts did.
Is gender the reason? It’s complicated.
However, O’Rourke and Sanders also got more attention than several male candidates, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), according to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis.
O’Rourke is getting more coverage than other candidates not just because of his gender, Lawless argued, but because he outperformed expectations in a high-profile race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) just a few months ago. He’s also very good at using social media to get people talking about him, Lawless says. “When you stick your iPhone in your mouth at the dentist, it garners attention,” she points out, referring to O’Rourke’s decision to live-stream a January dental visit on Instagram.
In past congressional elections, Lawless has found that gender didn’t have much influence over media coverage. She and her team looked at newspaper coverage of House races during the 2010 and 2014 election cycles — newspapers, she explains, remain voters’ top source of news on candidates for the House. The researchers found “no gender differences in either the volume or the substance of the coverage that candidates received.” That was true even when the researchers looked at references to candidates’ families and appearance, areas in which women are often thought to receive skewed coverage.
However, Lawless hasn’t studied coverage of the 2020 primary campaigns. She and her team focused on House races in part because media coverage for those is typically limited to mainstream publications. Senate and presidential races get covered by a wider array of media outlets with a wider variety of journalistic standards, and gender bias might be more likely to creep in, Lawless says. “Once you get onto talk radio, and the blogosphere, and cable news, anything goes.”
Gender might also be more salient in primaries than in general elections, she says. “In general elections, the main conflict that was covered was a battle of the parties, not a battle of the sexes,” she says. But in a primary, there’s no battle of the parties to capture attention, and “the sex of the candidate and what it means to be a male versus female candidate could very well make its way into coverage more prominently.”
And there’s the question of whether female candidates are held to different standards than men are. The four female senators running for the Democratic nomination “announced early, they were organized, they have well-developed policy positions,” Hunter says. O’Rourke’s campaign lacks that kind of discipline, and yet some media outlets have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Mr. O’Rourke has ample time to flesh out his agenda,” wrote Matt Flegenheimer and Jonathan Martin at the New York Times in March — “he spoke fondly, if not always specifically, this past week of ‘bold, progressive ideas.’”
“It would be hard to imagine a woman candidate being able to get away with that,” Hunter says. Research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows that female candidates “pay a higher price if they’re perceived to be learning on the job,” she explains.
“The men are given the most generous interpretation possible about who they are and what they want to do, and the women are held to the most skeptical, cynical standard possible,” says Brianna Wu, who ran for Congress in Massachusetts in 2018 and is running again in 2020.
“I really expected the media, after 2016, to do some real soul-searching in the ways that we talk about women presidential candidates,” Wu says. “It hurts me to see us right back here.”
Will it matter?
Bias in media coverage is important on its own, but it’s doubly important if it influences how people vote.
At this point in the race, it’s hard to tell how much O’Rourke’s attention advantage is helping him. He was able to raise $6.1 million in the 24 hours after his campaign announcement, more than any other Democrat in the race in that amount of time. But according to FiveThirtyEight, he didn’t get as much of a polling bump after his announcement as Sen. Harris did after hers.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg is rising in some polls, despite very little attention to his announcement relative to other candidates.
At the congressional level, female candidates are just as likely to win as men are, Lawless says. But of course, there’s very little data on whether female presidential candidates win their elections — the only nominee from a major party, Hillary Clinton, very memorably lost.
That could be a problem for the women running in 2020. According to Lawless, female candidates have to battle the perception among voters that they’re more likely to lose, even though that’s not actually the case.
“It’s probably the case that women on the campaign trail have to work harder to convince voters that they should be voting for them, Lawless says, “because voters think no one else is going to be willing to elect a woman.”
In this election cycle in particular, we’ve seen “questions about women’s electability” because of Clinton’s 2016 loss, she says — even though Clinton actually won the popular vote.
“There is this narrative out there that’s speculating that a woman can’t beat Trump,” Lawless explains. “Female candidates have to address that, and the male candidates don’t.”