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In September, when Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, was trailing behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the polls, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs predicting that his only path to victory would be to temper his overwhelming masculinity with some softer, more feminine messaging. As it turned out, Trump remained as masculine as ever and now he is our president-elect.
Before Trump’s upset, I discussed the effect of “gendered personality traits” on both voting patterns and campaign messaging. I defined a person’s gendered personality as “the relative presence in any given individual of masculine and feminine personality traits. So-called masculine traits include aggression, competitiveness, dominance, independence, and a willingness to defend one’s beliefs. Typical feminine traits are compassion, tenderness, warmth, sensitivity to the needs of others, and eagerness to soothe hurt feelings.”
Gendered personality is correlated with partisan voting patterns—the masculine tend to vote Republican and the feminine lean Democratic. Most Americans, however, are neither overwhelmingly masculine nor feminine but possess some mix of both traits, and so it is best for candidates to appeal to both. Trump’s victory questions whether that theory still holds.
Studies of how the gendered personality traits of presidential candidates interact with the gendered traits of voters are new but not unprecedented. For example, experimental research by Leonie Huddy and Nayda Terkildsen has shown that voters prefer masculine traits in their elected officials, especially at higher levels of office. The political scientists Richard Fox and Zoe Oxley have further demonstrated that each type of elected office has a different gendered stereotype attached to it, with individuals ascribing the most masculine characteristics, such as leadership and independence, to executive offices and the duties they entail. All of these findings suggest that presidential candidates need to possess strong masculine personalities in order to win the highest office in the land.
But Trump is certainly an outlier, since he embodied such masculinity in excess. He was aggressive, competitive, and defensive—all standard masculine traits that Trump often took to extremes, for instance by insulting or threatening his political enemies. In his persona and messaging, he attempted to project pure toughness.
The perception of Trump as hypermasculine is borne out by survey data. In a survey I conducted through Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online job board, just over four weeks before the election, the 1,000 respondents gave Trump an average score of 6.2 on a one-to-seven scale of masculine traits and only a 2.2 on a similar scale of feminine traits. Hillary Clinton, by comparison, was rated at 5.0 and 3.7, respectively—still more masculine than feminine, but with much less of a disparity between the two. To put this in context, the survey respondents themselves scored an average 4.6 on masculinity. Empirically, there was not much room for Trump to appear more masculine to voters than he already did, confirming my earlier intuition that had led me to recommend that he temper his hypermasculine behavior.
After all, a little less than one-quarter of Americans are primarily masculine, a similar number are primarily feminine, and the rest—over half the electorate—share roughly equal levels of masculine and feminine traits. Since voters are generally attracted to candidates who share their gendered personality traits, I argued before the election that a candidate who held both masculine and feminine traits would appeal to the broadest section of the electorate. The electoral success of President Barack Obama, who combines masculine and feminine traits in roughly equal measure, seemed to conform to this model, especially when compared with his 2012 opponent Mitt Romney, who had a more one-sided masculine message. This theory still holds, given the fact that Clinton, who had a fairly equal balance of masculine and feminine traits, ultimately won the popular vote.
A little less than one-quarter of Americans are primarily masculine, a similar number are primarily feminine, and the rest—over half the electorate—share roughly equal levels of masculine and feminine traits
Yet it remains to be explained why the candidate with the more extreme and one-sided gendered personality won the electoral college and came so close to winning the popular vote. There are a number of potential explanations, all of which suggest that a balanced gender profile is not necessarily what voters want.
The first possibility is that Trump's aggressive messaging garnered more attention. The extensive media coverage Trump received as a result of his tough talk could in theory have made it so that his masculinity crowded out consideration of feminine traits and issues. Overall, compassion issues played little role in the election. Trump's uncanny ability to deflect criticism—or at least to stave off potential harm from it—helped him overcome the media’s negativity toward him. For example, although there was a huge focus late in the campaign on his comments about grabbing women inappropriately, his ability to excuse his behavior as "locker room talk" helped to turn bad, possibly criminal, behavior into a harmless expression of masculinity. In contrast, Clinton's e-mail scandal came across as corruption and something her campaign could not spin in a similar way.
This hypothesis received strong initial support in the survey data. In a regression analysis testing the influence of individuals’ own gendered personality on voting behavior, respondents’ masculinity had a significant effect on candidate preference in the 2016 election (making them more likely to vote for Trump), while femininity had no effect. This finding stands in contrast to my own analyses of other elections published in my recent book, which found that both masculine and feminine traits affected voting. This discrepancy suggests that the particular candidate choices in this election may have resulted in unusual, one-sided masculinity effects. For instance, in past elections, voters with high levels of both masculine and feminine traits have traditionally leaned Democratic. But in this election, with barely any femininity present in the campaign narrative, Trump gained an advantage among these voters.
Another possibility is that, as a woman, Clinton suffered from a conventional double bind, appearing too masculine for traditional voters and too feminine for those wanting a tough, masculine president. Here again, the survey data lent some support. When I classified respondents according to whether they themselves possessed traditionally gendered traits—that is, whether their gendered personality conformed to their sex—I found that among the traditionally gendered, views of Clinton were less favorable than among the gender-nonconforming. Conforming individuals, meaning men who are predominantly masculine and women who are primarily feminine, view the world through a traditional sex role lens. This makes them less likely to accept a woman with strong masculine traits such as Clinton. They still want a masculine candidate, they just prefer him to be male.
Of course, these are two possibilities among many, and there is simply not enough data at this point to get any solid evidence about how gendered personality influenced the election. For example, it is possible that Trump's masculine message actually increased the expression of masculine tendencies among the voting public. It could also be the case that owing to different patterns of turnout and the logic of the electoral college, masculine personalities in the Rust Belt were an abnormally strong contributor to the result this year—that is, this election could represent the exception and not the rule.
There is also, of course, the possibility that other factors influenced or mitigated the impact of candidates’ gender traits. We do not know, for instance, exactly how the sex difference between the candidates interacted with their gendered personalities. And eight years of a black president, combined with the racially charged messages of the Trump campaign, could have made race into a more important factor for many voters.
Yet we do know that gendered personalities matter, and they matter specifically to political behavior. As I argued last time, the gap in partisan preferences between those with masculine and those with feminine personalities is even larger than the gap between men and women. Trump delivered a shock by winning on an extremely masculine platform and making few appeals to femininity. That doesn’t suggest that gendered personality was unimportant. Rather, it suggests that, as with much else related to the recent election, the reality was more complicated than models could predict.