The Results of IL-3 Suggest Cost of the “Character Pedestal” is Still High for Women Candidates

March 26, 2018

The Democratic primary match-up for the Illinois 3rd District U.S. House seat was one of the most hotly contested (and nationally watched) races of 2018 thus far. Anna North at Vox called it “an early test of a deep conflict within the Democratic Party.” In challenger Marie Newman and incumbent Dan Lipinski, we saw a left-of-left woman challenge a right-of-left man, with Lipinski winning by a narrow 51-49 margin.

While there are many threads (some gender-related and some not) to pull from this particular primary election, one thread echoes almost two decades of Barbara Lee Family Foundation research: women candidates have more difficulty recovering from even perceived ethical infractions.

To tell the story of IL-3 from the beginning – a little less than two weeks before the primary election, the Chicago Tribune ran a piece revealing that Newman’s former business partner, James Garofalo, pled guilty to two counts of wire fraud and was sentenced to six months in prison in 2010 for his role in an illegal mortgage scheme. Newman consistently insisted that she and her husband didn’t know, and that they took steps to end their involvement with Garofalo as soon as they found out. Lipinski later released a TV ad highlighting Newman’s connection to Garofalo, as well as a statement saying: “If my opponent is willing to go into business with a convicted felon who hurt seniors and working families, how can we trust her to demonstrate sound ethics and judgment in Congress?”

Although men running for office are also subject to character attacks (Lipinski himself was criticized for the amount of money he received from rail company PACs), it’s more difficult for women to move past those types of criticisms. Historically, voters have accorded women candidates a “virtue advantage:” voters put women on a character pedestal, expecting more of women. While this double standard can be an opportunity for women candidates (research shows that both Democratic and Republican women are perceived to be more honest by voters), it also has very real consequences for women running for office today. The higher the pedestal, the longer the fall.

It’s not that ethical attacks are inherently sexist, but that the consequences of such attacks are different for men and women.  Because the cost of an ethical infraction is higher for a woman candidate, it’s often a tried-and-true strategy to launch negative attacks on the character or values of a woman candidate. As Illinois is only the second state to hold a primary thus far in 2018, examining the campaigns offer us valuable insights into what to be on the lookout for in future races.

Nicole Carlsburg is the Executive Director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.