Not all sugar and spice: How women running for Congress communicate

June 16, 2023   Annelise Russell

  • Congressional Reform
  • Blog

Women running for Congress is a good thing for the institution. Women not only bring a unique perspective, research shows they are more likely to introduce legislation, are better at delivering dollars back to their home districts, and they get more bills passed in Congress. But could more women running for Congress also be good for the rhetorical tone of the institution?

Women Candidates on Social Media

Women running for Congress have adopted a bevy of communication tools and styles to secure their place in office. Once elected, women continue fighting to make their mark in Congress and don’t shy away from some tough talk.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, has successfully wielded social media – from Twitter to Instagram – to connect with her audience and promote her political brand and policy agenda. Other Democratic women, such as Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley – notable members of “The Squad” — have also used Twitter to promote a progressive agenda.

But it’s not just Democratic women turning to social media platforms to connect with a digital audience. Republican women candidates such as Representatives Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene have also turned to Twitter to both bolster support from voters and engage with opponents.

What the data says

In a recent article published by the Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, my coauthors and I studied the public tweets of 1,617 congressional candidates — 530 women and 1,087 men running for the House of Representatives in 2020 — to assess how women candidates use emotional appeals on Twitter to get elected to Congress. We expected women running for office in 2020 to use different emotional rhetoric than their male colleagues, but what we found was more complex.

Examples of the different types of rhetoric we looked at are shown below, highlighting the rhetorical choices that all candidates make when aiming for a spot in Congress.

Table 1. Examples of 2020 Campaign Tweets and Emotion Scores

While women candidates used more joyful and fewer angry appeals in their tweets than men overall, this is not consistent when disaggregated by political party.

Republican women candidates are significantly more likely to use joyful emotional appeals – much more so than both Republican men and Democratic women. Democratic women, however, are more likely to adopt emotional appeals consistent with those of their male Democratic counterparts, demonstrating a distinct difference between Democratic and Republican women.

Table 2. OLS Regression of 2020 Candidates’ Monthly Average Use of Emotive Words per Tweet


Congressional candidates’ Twitter activity is growing a set of data that allows researchers to explore how politicians communicate with voters and other audiences, particularly on new platforms that have the ability to amplify emotional appeals on a global scale.

As more women of both parties are elected to office, their campaign communications become an important source of information about how gendered appeals play out beyond elections. All lawmakers need to build a reputation, and many now use their daily communications on Twitter to facilitate that political brand – this branding, however, may be shaped by both gender and party.

Our analysis of 2020 congressional candidates’ Twitter activity found that more women running for Congress does not necessarily improve political dialogue or move it in a positive direction.

We also found that relative partisanship must be accounted for to develop a nuanced understanding of different styles of campaign communication by women. Candidates may adhere differently to traditional gender roles based on partisan affinity, and the impact of those differences may increase with growing numbers of Republican women running for Congress.

Women running for Congress make different choices from men about how to connect on social media, and the increasing number of women running for Congress from both parties suggests further assessment is needed of gendered patterns of emotional appeals.

Dr. Annelise Russell is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Kentucky and an external scholar with Sunwater’s Congressional Reform program. Her research explores how policymakers communicate their agendas and the role of the media, particularly social media, in the legislative process.