Women hold their own in first Democratic debates

By: Kelly Winfrey

The exchange between Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Amy Klobuchar during the first night of the Democratic debates demonstrated things are a little different this election cycle.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Amy Klobuchar debate June 27, 2019. (Photo credit: CNN)
Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Amy Klobuchar debate June 27, 2019. (Photo credit: CNN)

INSLEE: “I am the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health in health insurance, and I’m the only candidate who has passed a public option. And I respect everybody’s goals and plans here, but we do have one candidate that’s actually advanced the ball. And we’ve got to have access for everyone. I’ve done it as a public option.”

KLOBUCHAR: “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose. I’ll start with that.”

That’s right, there were three women on the stage that night and three more the next night. Never before has there been more than one woman on a major party’s primary debate stage. Not only were women present, but they came ready to debate and prove they could be the first female commander in chief.

By most media accounts, Warren and Harris both had great nights. There are countless media interpretations of who won or lost the debates, so I’m taking a different approach. Given how few women have participated in these types of debates, I’m going to focus on the role gender played.

There has been very little opportunity for political communications scholars, like myself, to study gender dynamics in presidential debates. Research on the 2008 and 2016 primary debate, which included Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachmann, found few gender differences in rhetorical strategies of the candidates, though the female candidates used personal experiences more frequently than male candidates.[i]

There has been (somewhat) more opportunity to examine gender differences in gubernatorial and Senate races. One key finding from this research is that in mixed-gender debates, candidates are aware of stereotypes and implement a strategy of “gender adaptiveness” whereby they try to demonstrate a balance of stereotypically masculine and feminine traits and issues.[ii]

I will use the idea of gender adaptiveness to examine what happened in the first set of Democratic debates and focus on the female candidates. It is also important to note that women must walk a delicate line of showing enough masculine traits to be seen as a good leader and enough feminine traits to be seen as likeable. You can read my recent publication with James Schnoebelen for more explanation of how gender stereotypes influence candidates’ communication.[iii]

Let’s start with Elizabeth Warren, the woman polling highest going into the debates. Warren displayed a strong balance of the masculine and feminine. She showed the masculine traits of being a fighter, using evidence and reasoning, and focused on the economy coupled with the feminine strategy of using personal experience to demonstrate a point. For example, in her closing statement Warren said:

“Thank you. It’s a great honor to be here. Never in a million years did I think I would stand on a stage like this. I was born and raised in Oklahoma. I have three older brothers. They all joined the military. I had a dream growing up. And my dream was to be a public school teacher. By the time I graduated from high school, my family — my family didn’t have the money for a college application, much less a chance for me to go to college. But I got my chance. It was a $50 a semester commuter college. That was a little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl. And it opened my life. I am in this fight because I believe that we can make our government, we can make our economy, we can make our country work not just for those at the top. We can make it work for everyone. And I promise you this: I will fight for you as hard as I fight for my own family.”

In this example, she uses her personal experience to relate to voters and to make her point about the opportunity she would like to see available to others. She also makes clear that she will fight for the American people.

Warren is known for her detailed plans and use of facts to make claims, and there are many examples of her using this strategy during the debate. By using these rhetorical strategies, Warren shows she is capable, compassionate and relatable.

Also on the first night, Amy Klobuchar balanced the personal with her experience in politics when talking about gun control:

“But I’ll say this. I look at these proposals and I say, does this hurt my Uncle Dick and his deer stand, coming from a proud hunting and fishing state? These proposals don’t do that. When I was a prosecutor, I supported the assault weapons ban. When I was in the Senate, I saw those moms from Sandy Hook come and try to advocate for change, and we all failed. And then now these Parkland kids from Florida, they started literally a national shift.”

On the second night, Kamala Harris did an excellent job highlighting her experience in politics by talking about her time as California’s attorney general and her work in the U.S. Senate. She also blended that with her experience as a woman of color in an exchange with Joe Biden:

“Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because she — because we were black. And I will say also that — that, in this campaign, we have also heard — and I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe, and it’s personal — and I was actually very — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly. As attorney general of California, I was very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.”

These examples are not to say that only women used these strategies. In fact, Booker, Castro and Buttigieg used them. The difference is that male candidates have the option to be all-masculine or a mix of masculine and feminine, but women must walk the line and balance both. These examples demonstrate some of the ways they achieved that.

Speaking time, topics and interruptions

Some early research on gender and political debates found that women spoke less and were more likely to be interrupted.[iv] This was not the case in either of the debates last week. Each night women made up 30% of the candidates on stage and used 31-32% of the total speaking time.

Below are two tables—one from each debate night, showing how long each person spoke and the issue they spent the most time talking about. This information is from The New York Times. Since the first night was more polite and less chaotic than the second, it’s worth looking at each group separately.

The tables also show interruptions made and received. The Washington Post counted 30 interruptions on night one and 53 on night two. The Washington Post did not report the number of interruptions each candidate made, but they did show who interrupted who. The tables show the number of other candidates each individual interrupted and the number of candidates that interrupted the candidate. For example, Amy Klobuchar interrupted three candidates (Warren, Booker and Delaney) and was interrupted by one candidate (Delaney).

Debate Night 1

CandidateMinutes SpeakingIssue# Candidates They Interrupted# Candidates Interrupted Them
Booker11:06Immigration1 (Castro)5 (Inslee, de Blasio, Castro, Klobuchar, Gabbard)
O'Rourke10:33Health Care2 (Castro, de Blasio)2 (Castro, de Blasio)
Warren9:31Economy01 (Klobuchar)
Castro8:47Immigration2 (Booker, O'Rourke)2 (Booker, O'Rourke)
Klobuchar8:27Health Care3 (Warren, Booker, Delaney)1 (Delaney)
Ryan7:41Foreign Policy1 (Gabbard)1 (Gabbard)
Health Care
2 (Klobuchar, de Blasio)1 (Klobuchar)
Gabbard6:38Foreign Policy2 (Ryan, Booker)2 (Ryan, de Blasio)
de Blasio5:54Immigration
Gun Control
3 (Booker, O'Rourke, Gabbard)2 (Delaney, O'Rourke)
Climate Change
1 (Booker)0


Debate Night 2

CandidateMinutes SpeakingIssue# Candidates They Interrupted# Candidates Interrupted Them
Biden13:19Health Care1 (Harris, Sanders)5 (Buttigieg, Gillibrand, Sanders, Bennet, Harris)
Harris12:16Immigration4 (Bennet, Biden, Sanders, Williamson)4 (Gillibrand, Swalwell, Williamson, Biden)
Buttigieg11:21Immigration3 (Sanders, Hickenlooper, Biden)1 (Swalwell)
Sanders10:58Health Care3 (Gillibrand, Swalwell, Biden)7 (Bennet, Gillibrand, Swalwell, Buttigieg, Williamson, Biden, Harris)
Bennet9:22Health Care1 (Gillibrand)2 (Gillibrand, Harris)
Gillibrand7:34Health Care4 (Bennet, Sanders, Harris, Biden)2 (Bennet, Sanders)
Hickenlooper5:08Climate Change01 (Buttigieg)
Williamson4:58Health Care
4 (Swalwell, Sanders, Harris, Biden)1 (Harris)
Swalwell4:43Gun Control3 (Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg)2 (Sanders, Williamson)

What do these tables tell us about gender? First, women spoke as much or more than men. More questions were focused on the candidates polling higher, like Warren, Biden and Sanders. FiveThirtyEight reported that there was a correlation between polling numbers and the number of words spoken by each candidate, particularly on the second night. However, Warren actually spoke less than her polling lead would suggest. On the other hand, Booker, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Castro and Klobuchar spoke more in relation to their poll standings.

The second noteworthy issue is interruptions. Women were not more likely to be interrupted in either debate. The number of interruptions relates more to candidates’ status in the polls and the total amount of time they spoke during the debate. Also noteworthy is that women interrupted at least as much as men, with the exception of Warren who made no interruptions. On night two, the three women were tied in the number of candidates they interrupted, and they interrupted more of their opponents than male candidates.

Concluding thoughts

There are two big takeaways from the first round of debates that relate to gender. First, the women candidates have used rhetorical strategies that communicate both masculinity and femininity, which is a necessity for female candidates, particularly those running for the presidency.

Second, women were not wallflowers in these debates. They were not passive participants. They spoke frequently and were not walked over by the male candidates. Women were equal participants in these debates, and at the end of the day, equal is what we want.

[i] Greenwood, Molly M., and Calvin R. Coker. “The Political Is Personal: Analyzing the Presidential Primary Debate Performance of Hillary Clinton and Michele Bachmann.” Argumentation & Advocacy 52 (2016): 165-80.

[ii] Banwart, Mary C., and Mitchell S. McKinney. A Gendered Influence in Campaign Debates? Analysis of Mixed-Gender United States Senate And Gubernatorial Debates.” Communication Studies 56, no. 4 (2005): 353-73.

[iii] Winfrey, Kelly L., and James M. Schnoebelen. “Running as a Woman (or Man): A Review of Research on Political Communicators and Gender.” Review of Communication Research 7 (2019).

[iv] For a review of this research, see Winfrey and Schnoebelen, 2019.

Kelly Winfrey
Kelly Winfrey

Kelly Winfrey is an assistant professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University and serves as the coordinator of research and outreach for the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. She also serves as faculty for the Leadership Studies Program. Her peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters focus on topics such as gender identification in young voters, the effects of gender in presidential and U.S. Senate campaigns, perceptions of candidate image by debate viewers, online self-presentation strategies of political candidates, campaign coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in 2008, and the content and effects of presidential campaign television ads. Her new book, “Understanding How Women Vote: Gender Identity and Political Choices,” was published in November 2018. She earned her Ph.D. in communication studies from the University of Kansas.