A number of unlikely sources defended President Obama last week when he called California Attorney General Kamala Harris "the best looking attorney general" and was later forced to apologize for it. His defenders mostly sang a common refrain: What's the harm in complimenting a woman's appearance?
As if on cue, a study released Monday showed that media coverage of a woman candidate's appearance actually makes people less likely to vote for her -- even if the comments are positive.
"Women candidates pay a real price when they are covered in a way that focuses on their appearance," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners, which conducted the survey along with Chesapeake Beach Consulting, said in a statement. "Even what we thought was benign coverage about how a woman dresses has a negative impact on her vote and whether voters perceive her as in touch, likeable, confident, effective, and qualified. And, in close races, sexist coverage on top of the attacks that every candidate faces can make the difference between winning and losing."
The survey found that a female candidate takes a hit in her "favorability," "her likelihood to be seen as possessing positive traits" and "how likely voters are to vote for her." A woman candidate loses 11 percentage points on the issue of "being in touch" when voters read about her appearance. Similarly, her likeability goes down six points, and whether voters see her as "confident," "effective" and "qualified" each go down by five.
On the positive side, the survey found that women who confront the coverage as out of place in a political campaign, regain their lost points. Voters react positively to a candidate standing up for herself.
In the study, respondents read candidate profiles in a fictitious congressional race between Jane Smith and Dan Jones. Then a quarter of respondents read coverage of the race that included a positive description of Jane Smith's appearance. Another quarter read coverage with a negative description of her appearance, a third quarter read neutral coverage of her appearance and a fourth read a story with no description of her appearance.
When respondents read just the initial candidate profiles, they chose Jane Smith over Dan Jones by one point. When respondents were asked who they would vote for after reading the additional news stories, the female candidate won only among respondents who read no coverage of her appearance.
The group that heard the positive description -- "In person, Smith is ﬁt and attractive and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartly turned out in a ruﬄed jacket, pencil skirt, and fashionable high heels" -- chose the male candidate by a double-digit margin.
The study, conducted for Name It. Change It., a watchdog project of the Women's Media Center and She Should Run that tracks sexist media coverage, surveyed 1,500 likely voters between March 3-7. The survey was conducted online and weighted slightly to reflect the attributes of the population.