The Disruptors: History Making Campaigns and a New Kind of Candidate

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that an unprecedented number of women are running for office in the 2018 midterm elections. Not only that, but there’s a likely chance that a record number of women will actually win their races on November 6.

There are a number of explanations as to what led us here. What we know for sure is that many of the female candidates who won their parties’ nominations did so without conforming to the norms previously established by male politicians. In the past, women running for office have felt the need to downplay anything that might remind voters of their gender. They have steered clear of sharing aspects of their personal lives that could make them seem vulnerable, inexperienced or unqualified to lead. At the same time, they have had to tip toe around personality traits that, while impressive in men, may be viewed as unattractive in women.

But in this election cycle, women have been putting their personal stories and norm-breaking qualities at the forefront of their campaigns. And it seems to be working. In a moment when many people feel that politicians are out of touch with their constituents, first-time and outsider candidates are appealing to voters precisely because the communities they seek to represent relate to their stories. This disruption of the status quo has come as a surprise to a number of long-time incumbents as well as to party leaders.

In New York’s 14th Congressional District, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez handily upset Joe Crowley, a 10-term House Democrat. During the campaign, Crowley was so untroubled by his challenger that he skipped two of their debates, in one instance sending a surrogate in his stead, a move that was called out by Ocasio-Cortez, as well as by the New York Times editorial board. (Though the Times itself is hardly blameless—its coverage of Ocasio-Cortez’s primary campaign was, at best, minimal.) Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, spent months knocking on doors and engaging with members of the community. Voters took note and showed up to the polls on primary day.

In Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District, the state Democratic Party declined to support Jahana Hayes, instead endorsing a candidate with greater political experience who was seen as more electable. Hayes had no background in politics, and instead highlighted her life experience—growing up in public housing, watching her mother struggle with addiction, and becoming a teenage mother, all of which she overcame to put herself through school, earn an advanced degree and be awarded National Teacher of the Year by President Obama in 2016—which voters ultimately felt better recommended her to represent them and their interests. Hayes won the nomination with 62% of the vote.

This year, a different kind of candidate with a different set of qualifications has resulted in a different approach to campaigning. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was an indisputably qualified candidate whose campaign stayed true to the political playbook. Ultimately, that approach did not serve her well—although realistically it may have been the only one available to her. When she tried to stay focused on policy and steer clear of the personal, she was unlikable. When she attempted to course correct and share a softer side—such as describing herself as a grandmother—voters found her calculating and inauthentic. This is what’s known as likability bias. With a male candidate, voters take for granted that he is qualified. With a female candidate, the same is not true, and the more she attempts to assert her qualifications, the less likable she becomes.

The difference in this election cycle is that women have been presenting themselves more often as whole people than as politicians. The qualities that in past campaigns may have been seen as secondary to a candidate’s political expertise, or even as a liability to getting elected, are now the very qualities that make them credible in the eyes of voters. For these candidates, the issues are personal. For voters, that’s reassuring.  

Some of the most visible examples of candidates showcasing their lived experience and authentic selves have come in the form of digital campaign ads. Candidates have featured themselves breastfeeding and getting ultrasounds. Others talk about the challenges of being a working mother, growing up without health insurance, a mother’s opioid addiction, suffering childhood abuse and weighing whether to terminate a pregnancy. One video is shot in a tattoo parlor, another in a boxing ring where the candidate spars with a male opponent. The trend paints a bigger picture, much more aligned with reality—a woman can be many things at once, none of which preclude her being an effective leader. Nor (fingers crossed) preclude her getting elected.

When she was running for Attorney General of Michigan in 1998, Jennifer Granholm was advised that she should cut her hair (being too feminine would be a distraction), play down the fact that she would be the first female Attorney General in the state (maybe voters won’t notice?), and most importantly, spend as little time talking about being a mother and a wife as possible (to eliminate questions about where her priorities would, and should, lie). Since then, female candidates and their advisors have incrementally moved away from this approach, but still struggled to find the right balance so as not to offend voter sensibilities about gender constructs and the role we’re comfortable seeing women play. (Let’s not forget that only four years ago, there was a question about whether being a grandmother would conflict with Hillary Clinton running for president.)

One of the most effective campaigns this election cycle has, through a series of videos, deftly dismissed the notion that a candidate’s outsider status, military service, motherhood or lack of experience might be problematic. Quite to the contrary, the video campaign demonstrates how these characteristics make her uniquely qualified to represent her would-be constituents’ interests in Congress. Amy McGrath is the Democratic nominee in Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District, and her campaign has crafted a narrative that embraces each of the seemingly disparate aspects of her life. The range of images we see across her ads—from fighter planes landing on an aircraft carrier to her three-year-old son, hoping to avoid getting a shot at the doctor, running down a hallway with his pants around his ankles—sends the message that McGrath can be trusted to take on big-picture policy issues in Washington, but she isn’t going to play politics at the expense of what matters in people’s everyday lives. She has flown 89 combat missions and considers running for Congress her 90th. But the mission she calls her toughest? Getting three kids to the pediatrician.

Come November 7, the challenge we will have—regardless of the outcome of the previous day’s races—is to harness the momentum and energy that precipitated a historic number of women running for office and apply it to future campaigns. The truth is that even if all of the women running this year were to win their races, we’ll still be nowhere near achieving gender parity in Congress or across governor’s offices. But what’s different is that women are taking it upon themselves to effect change in this country and to give a voice to the people and interests that have long been neglected. Not only that, but they’re doing it on their own terms. Perceptions of what a candidate—and in turn, a politician—should look and sound like, have already begun to change. It may be a long road, but we should feel heartened that there are exciting things ahead. McGrath for President in 2020, perhaps?