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2020 presidential election: Democrats’ authenticity primary, explained

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Beto O’Rourke quite literally drips with authenticity; he’s the cool punk rocker dad on the campaign trail. Joe Biden’s love of trains and off-color jokes has earned him the affectionate nickname Uncle Joe. No one doubts Bernie Sanders’s passion for democratic socialism.

But some candidates have a harder time proving they’re the real deal. When Kamala Harris told the Breakfast Club radio show she listened to Tupac and Snoop Dogg, she was accused of lying about her musical taste, in an apparent questioning of her blackness. Elizabeth Warren has been called “aloof” for her focus on policy, and the scandal around her claims of Native American heritage earned her a comparison to Hillary Clinton.

As the 2020 Democratic presidential field grows, the fight over “authenticity” is becoming difficult to ignore — and a clear gender divide is forming.

“We have seen many, many men run over time who have different personalities,” Jen Lawless, a political scientist with University of Virginia with an expertise in women in politics, said. “We are accustomed to different presentations of men that we see as authentic.”

Winning the “authenticity” primary can mean the difference between being “scandal-plagued” Hillary Clinton and “Teflon” Trump. Democrats’ No. 1 priority is to unseat Trump. And despite the president’s prolific record of lying, he is seen as an authentic, shoot-from-the-hip politician — which makes this completely subjective test an important one in the 2020 Democratic primary.

It’s a debate that will unfold in an unprecedented field of diverse presidential candidates; women, people of color, and an openly gay candidate are all going up against a slate of other candidates afforded the advantage of fitting the mold of what an American president has almost always looked like. Of course, there are always exceptions. Mitt Romney struggled to be personable and relatable against Barack Obama in 2012.

“Metrics like authenticity and likability and electability are just code that we use against candidates who are not like what we are used to,” Christina Reynolds, the spokesperson for Emily’s List, a political organization that supports women candidates, told Vox.

What authenticity looks like, according to political science

“Amtrak Joe” Biden loves trains.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Authenticity is hard to pin down. But conversations with political scientists, including Rutgers University’s Kelly Dittmar and Lawless, explained what goes into it in four buckets:

1) The ability to interact in an informal way. Not seeming too polished. This speaks to a candidate’s performance style. Are they the Bill Clinton type who plays the saxophone and trades jokes on late-night television? Would you have a beer with them? Do they sound like they’re speaking off the cuff, rather than rehearsed? It’s the quality that can make eating food on a stick at the Iowa State Fair effective instead of just awkward. And what makes Trump’s style of unfiltered speaking resonate.

2) Having a credible personal narrative. This is about making politics personal. Biden talks politics with stories about his family, riding back and forth on the train between Wilmington, Delaware, and Washington, DC, or his memories of the late Sen. John McCain. He’s selling a personal narrative for people to have an emotional response to. Sanders recalls fighting for the same issues in the 1970s as he is today, creating what appears to be a credible political record. On the flip side, as much as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) wants to present herself as the “Senator Next Door,” allegations that she abused her staff raise serious questions about what kind of leader she actually is.

3) Aligning with voters’ perceptions. “Authenticity” becomes more complicated when it gets into people’s biases and preconceptions about what a politician should look and act like. Can a politician fit the mold of how an average voter thinks a president should look and act?

4) Electability. In many ways, the previous three attributes determine this last factor. Is the candidate presidential? Can they win? It’s particularly relevant in this election, as Democrats see defeating Trump as a top priority. It is also the most quantifiable of the bunch; there is polling data that shows head-to-head matchups with Trump.

The inherent “authenticity” challenge of disrupting the norm

The United States has never elected a president under the age of 42, never a woman president, and never anyone openly LGBTQ. That could all change in 2020; candidates fitting each of those descriptions are already running for the Democratic nomination.

And though Barack Obama offers a successful model for black candidates running for president, women candidates really only have Hillary Clinton — one of the most disliked politicians in recent history, who ultimately lost the Electoral College, and therefore the presidential election.

Warren, for example, is already getting the comparisons. Politico wrote that the senator was battling “the ghosts of Hillary,” appearing “cold and aloof.” The Associated Press questioned whether a deep policy platform like Warren’s could withstand Trump, after it was clear Clinton’s could not.

Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at an organizing event on February 18, 2019 in Glendale, California.

Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at an organizing event on February 18, 2019, in Glendale, California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

“Women are held to a higher standard when it comes to credentials,” Dittmar, who studies women in politics, said. “That means talking more about policy and being more wonky, but that might not be the person voters want to have a beer with. But when women don’t do that, then people don’t think they are up for the job.”

And when it comes to voters’ perceptions, disrupting the “image” of a president can create an added hurdle. A subjective factor, like authenticity, may hurt women candidates more.

In the workplace, research shows that women receive more subjective critical feedback than men, and even when men receive critical feedback, they are still perceived well. When the standards are based on employees’ “actual performance and work relationships,” this disparity between men and women drops dramatically. Another study found that the more subjective the hiring process, the better male candidates perform.

This is reflected in some of the research around women in politics. The gender gap in politics is largely fueled by an ambition gap; fewer women than men see a place for themselves in politics and the institutions around politics. And they are often confronted with the same subjective biases.

“All you have to do is look at the field of Democratic men running for 2020 and how completely differently they present themselves,” Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, told me. She pointed out, for example, how O’Rourke can present himself much more casually than some of the women running do.

Despite all this, when women do make it on the ballot, they win at the same rate as men. As Democrats seek to show the greatest contrast to Trump — a president who among Democratic circles has gained a reputation for being a hardline conservative who’s also sexist, racist, xenophobic, and homophobic — the candidate that disrupts the status quo might actually have a different advantage.

“There is something to the fact that thinking about opposing Donald Trump and drawing a contrast to him,” Dittmar said. “There is a willingness to say the best contrast to that guy is a woman — and maybe a woman of color.”

How authenticity plays a role when voters just really want to beat Trump

President Trump Departs White House En Route To Palm Beach, Florida

President Donald Trump is seen as super authentic.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

A vast majority of Americans don’t want to see Trump serve a second term in office. And it’s made them rethink their priorities at the voting booth.

According to an early February poll from Monmouth University, 56 percent of Americans prefer “someone who would be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues.” Only 33 percent would prioritize issues, even if it meant the candidate would have a hard time against Trump.

In other words, voters are looking to that last factor — electability — as paramount to how they plan to cast their ballot.

“Authenticity” and “electability” are intrinsically linked. Dahlia Lithwick’s explanation of Hillary Clinton’s downfall explains this best:

She was also unerringly slammed as being some version of “guarded,” “secretive,” “evasive,” and, above all other things, “inauthentic.” There are thousands of articles and entire books devoted to Clinton’s alleged “authenticity” problem, and indeed, of all the fake scandals that stuck to her like glue, the apotheosis was the claim that she had used a private server as secretary of state and deleted emails before handing her files over to State Department record-keepers. She was thus confirmed, in the popular imagination, to be a keeper of secrets, a hider of truths, a chameleon always shifting with the political winds, as she held her true self away from our gaze.

Clinton was deemed unelectable.

Now, as a historically diverse cast of 2020 presidential candidates begin to compete for the nomination, who fills the space as the most authentic — the most trustworthy, the most natural, the most honest, with the most credible personal story — remains wide open.

Li Zhou contributed reporting to this story.

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