When I began thinking about this research project, I wanted to look at the campaign strategies and self-presentation decisions of female political candidates. Unfortunately, as I delved further into the relevant literature, I realized how expansive this topic is. So many forces go into determining what a candidate does and says, and not all of those forces are particularly easy to measure and aggregate.
Accordingly, I decided to narrow my approach a bit and focus on a particular aspect of public image: the mass media’s role in constructing a candidate’s campaign. This interest sprung from a body of literature that says, “men and women campaign on the same issues and so things are equal now.” Simply put, I wasn’t buying it. Perhaps campaigns, once reduced to issue discussions, look the same when we vary candidate gender. But I couldn’t observe Hilary Clinton’s experience in 2008, or Michelle Bachmann in 2012 and conclude that things were “equal.” Something about the nature of campaigns still featured real differences between men and women.
Research led me to wonder if those “real differences” stemmed from contextual factors rather than anything to do with the candidates themselves. That is to say, the individual politician is engaging in recognizable and largely universal strategies for communication and self-presentation. But, those individuals may then be operating in different political environments and some of those differences may be dependent on gender, which may explain why we experience Clinton’s campaign distinctly from, say, Barack Obama’s campaign.
This line of thinking led me to scrutiny of the media. Perhaps Saturday Night Live had really hit the nail on the head during this 2008 skit featuring Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton, denouncing the sexism they faced at the hands of major media markets.
Ultimately, my study was limited and my findings not entirely conclusive. There was no measurable difference in the way the media covered male and female candidates in the 2012 Senate elections. But, I do think this is a line of questioning that needs to be continued and expanded.