Research in Progress: Developing the female candidate’s story: New directions in political PR

June 11, 2019

Madden and Levenshus

By Stephanie Madden, Pennsylvania State University, and Abbey Levenshus, Butler University

On January 3, 2019, the 116th U.S. Congress made herstory as 127 women were sworn into office.

News coverage of the 116th Congress focused not only on candidates as women, but also on other aspects of their identities such as the first female combat veteran, youngest woman in Congress, first Native American woman, first Muslim woman and first openly gay senator. Rather than trying to fit into a narrow view of what a politician looks like, candidates proudly asserted these differences.

As researchers, we wanted to understand both the challenges and opportunities that exist in this shift toward authenticity in female political candidate narratives.

Getting more women to run for office

Despite the current momentum and exposure to women’s candidacy, women remain less likely to run for public office than men. This disparity is not due to lack of interest or qualifications, but instead reflects greater barriers to entry experienced by women than men – especially women of color and trans women. Because existing political networks tend to be male-dominated, women’s advancement in politics can be limited as current leaders often recruit those who are most similar to themselves.

Furthermore, female candidates often face harassment, threats and traditional stereotypes of women. To address these challenges, candidate recruitment and training programs for women were established in the early 1970s to help women see themselves as potential elected officials and coach them through the arduous process. Communication is foundational to such programs but has not been investigated by communication researchers.

Development of a candidate narrative

Various aspects related to political candidate narratives have been researched in strategic communication, including political advertising, social media, websites and news coverage. Yet, little, if any, research exists on the first-hand, behind-the-scenes process of candidates’ narrative development before such narratives are disseminated to and interpreted by various audiences, such as voters, volunteers, and competitors.

Identity deserves fundamental consideration in how female candidates can authentically communicate who they are to voters. Yet, bringing identity into political discourse runs the risk of being dismissed as “identity politics,” which focuses on the issues of groups such as women, racial minorities, immigrants, LBGTQIA+ people and religious minorities. While identity plays a key role in candidates crafting an authentic narrative, it can also manifest as an “issue” to be managed when entering and navigating a mainstream political arena that is still largely male, older, affluent, straight and white.

Our study

Our project entails an ethnographic case study of a candidate training program aimed at supporting and increasing the number of Democratic women who run for public office. Through participant observation of a six-month, cohort-based training program; follow-up in-depth interviews with the 2019 training cohort and trainers; and, document analysis, this study will explore how women are trained to develop and communicate their narrative identity around who they are as candidates and what they represent.

This study aims to contribute to political public relations research by focusing on the behind-the-scenes internal communication-related aspects of the training, particularly the communication processes of shaping a narrative identity as a candidate.

For more information on this study, email Madden at Results from the project will be available next year. This study is a part of the Center's 2019 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grants call for research proposals focusing on narratives in communications.