Rutgers Researcher Examines Political Campaigns

 

KDittmar_10.2014-copyIn 2008, Kelly Dittmar spent day and night tracking every move of Hillary Clinton’s run for president as a graduate research assistant.

“My colleagues called it ‘Hillary Watch,’” recalls Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University–Camden and a scholar for the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

As part of her graduate work at CAWP, Dittmar focused on evidence of gender dynamics and sexism in coverage of the race. However, as she gained insight into the campaign’s strategies and messages, she became increasingly frustrated with where she believed Clinton was losing out on votes. Rather than highlight Clinton as the potential first female president, her advisors had seen this perception as a liability and instead sought “to contend her femininity and amplify the notion that she was tough enough for the job.”

“I thought, ‘What does this mean, and how might they have incorporated her identity as a woman into the campaign in a way that is seen as advantageous?’” recalls the Philadelphia resident.

While Clinton, of course, went on to lose the race, her campaign provided the inspiration for Dittmar’s continued research on women and American politics, focusing specifically on campaigns as gendered institutions.

“My research is based on the theoretical idea that there are gendered rules of the game,” she explains. “Men and women have to confront and combat different norms when they make a bid for office.”

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Dittmar and Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics (left), and Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP)

According to Dittmar, there are stereotypical expectations about how elected leaders and candidates should look and act that don’t align as well for women as they do for men. For men, these expectations often coincide because they are tied to notions of masculinity. For women, these expectations aren’t as congruent, which may inform their strategies and decisions – or those of their opponents – on the campaign trail.

“We do know that women win at the same rates as men do in comparable races, so these stereotypes don’t seem to be hurting women at the ballot box,” says Dittmar. “However, it does influence the path that women and men take, how they navigate their campaigns, to get to that win or loss. That’s what we need to understand.”

Dittmar investigates the many instances and ramifications of these gendered stereotypes in her forthcoming book Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns, to be published in January 2015 by Temple University Press. The text, which focuses on 2008 and 2010 campaigns for women running for governor and the U.S. Senate, draws upon interviews and surveys of candidates and campaign operatives to examine the ways in which gender informs candidate presentation and campaign decision-making.

“The book is very much focused on the idea of how gender is at play between the point at which a woman declares herself a candidate and election day,” says Dittmar.

Among the topics covered, Dittmar examines the methods and impacts of running negative campaigns for both female and male candidates. As she explains, women who “go negative” disrupt gendered expectations that they shouldn’t be too combative or aggressive. Meanwhile, when interviewed, male candidates and their strategists expressed a need to proceed with caution when running negatively against their female opponents; it’s not that they can’t, but need to consider how they go about it.

“They can’t get too personal in the attack,” explains Dittmar. “There is a perception, particularly among male candidates, that they don’t want to be perceived as bullies. That’s different than if they were running against a man.”

Conversely, as much as gendered stereotypes align for men, Dittmar adds, male candidates who don’t put out images depicting strength and masculinity can likewise be perceived as not living up to expectations.

“This, too, could have a backlash,” she says.

In the book, Dittmar posits that a concerted effort must be made to change the institutional dynamics for all candidates, so that they can enter and navigate campaigns on their own terms without expectations that challenge, penalize, or create additional obstacles. She argues that, while campaigns want to meet voter expectations, they can avoid reinforcing these gendered stereotypes by presenting different qualifications for what it means to be a candidate.

“Individuals and their campaigns do have the power to challenge voters to think beyond the confines of their existing stereotypes,” says Dittmar, who serves on the editorial board for Politics and Gender. “There is a larger, societal problem with regards to stereotypes, but campaigns can be a mechanism for institutional change and to change the mindset of voters.”

“We can prove,” Dittmar continues, “that a woman is tough enough for the job, while also expanding the criteria upon which we deem a candidate – man or woman – qualified to serve.”

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Dittmar and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro

Dittmar’s fascination with women’s participation in politics began while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich. After delving into research projects on women and politics at Aquinas, she soon gained an inside view of the political process, serving as a federal legislative assistant to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Upon earning her degree in 2006, Dittmar was drawn to Rutgers to pursue the only Ph.D. in the nation specializing in women and politics. She found the program to be “a natural fit,” she recalls, enabling her to tap into the strength and resources at CAWP, a nationally known institution in the field.

Dittmar earned her doctorate in 2012 and served a yearlong fellowship as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow for Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), assisting DeLauro on education, labor, social welfare, and women’s issues.

She then rejoined CAWP, where she has since managed national research projects, helped to develop and implement the center’s research agenda, and contributed to CAWP reports, publications, and analyses.

Dittmar’s own research often overlaps with the center’s agenda, such as her current project, commissioned by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, examining the strategies, media coverage, and gender dynamics in the campaigns of the nine women running for governor in 2014.

Looking to merge teaching and her research, Dittmar took on her new role at Rutgers–Camden this fall. She now hopes to serve as a conduit between Rutgers–Camden, CAWP, and the Eagleton Institute, helping Rutgers–Camden students to take advantage of the available programs and resources on the New Brunswick campus.

Just as importantly, Dittmar wants to get her students thinking.

“I want them to look at elections with a gendered lens,” she says, “to the point where they are asking, ‘How does gender really matter?’”

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