Dissertation Defense: Cammie Bolin
Candidate Name: Cammie Bolin
Advisor: Jamil Scott, Ph.D.
Title: Redesigning Women: Candidate Identity and Strategic Presentation on the Campaign Trail
This dissertation advances scholarship on women candidates’ self-presentation strategy on the campaign trail. Using a multimethod approach, I explore what aspects of their background and identity women candidates are choosing to emphasize in their video advertisements, why women candidates are changing their self-presentation strategy, and how constituents respond to these changes. Through compiling and analyzing a unique dataset of more than 3,000 video advertisements from women and men candidates to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014-2020, I find women candidates are adjusting the version of themselves they present in their political advertisements. Women candidates in recent election cycles are choosing to deemphasize their political qualifications, increasingly describing their strength, and for candidates who are mothers, deemphasizing their motherhood. By interviewing “campaign insiders” (i.e., candidates, consultants, leaders of candidate training programs, and campaign staff), I explore the barriers women candidates continue to face, the self-presentation strategies they have developed to address these barriers, and potential causes of change in candidate self-presentation strategy. Through these conversations, I learn that women candidates seek to balance authenticity with voter expectations. A congruence of factors—e.g., President Trump’s electoral success as an “outsider candidate,” the increasing voter preference for “authentic” candidates, a “culture shift” toward greater acceptance for women’s leadership, and a proliferation of women political role models—leading up to and continuing through the 2018 elections explain changes in the story women candidates present while campaigning. Through three survey experiments manipulating aspects of women candidates’ professional experience, family presentation, and dress, I examine constituent responses to the story women candidates tell about themselves. I find that both partisanship and gender explain voter responses to candidate presentation. Democratic women and men are similarly affected by the type of professional and personal experience candidates emphasize, while Republican women and men differ in their responses to candidate experience and dress. Overall, this dissertation seeks to expand our understanding of the ways in which candidate identity interacts with broader political circumstances to inform strategy and how voters respond to women candidates’ self-presentation decisions.