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Identity politics shape 2016 presidential election

But candidates’ tendency to seek votes based on these descriptive characteristics has prompted debate about what matters more to voters when they’re at the ballot box.

Feminist icon Madeleine Albright recently faced backlash for encouraging women to vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman, and Gloria Steinem was criticized for saying young women supported Bernie Sanders in order to meet men.

Rebecca Kreitzer, a professor of public policy at UNC, said comments like these are counterproductive.

“Both of them have kind of walked back on their statements because they realized that what they were doing was kind of creating an assumption that all women believe the same things, and that all women should do the same thing,” she said.

Kreitzer said descriptive representation is the idea that if candidates share a politically relevant characteristic with voters, the candidate will better represent them.

Andrew Reynolds, a political science professor at UNC, said descriptive representation is one of three elements of representation that voters consider — the other two being geography and ideology.

“Sometimes I like to say that it means nothing in the sense that it shouldn’t matter if you’re male or female, if you’re black or white, if you’re gay or straight as a candidate,” Reynolds said. “But, at the same time as it meaning nothing, it means everything.”

He said while no one aspect of representation dominates the others, voting for descriptive representation is becoming more significant in the United States among both majority and minority groups, due to an increasing emphasis on including marginalized voices.

Bradley Opere, student body president-elect, said voting for these characteristics have potential benefits, but he doesn’t think voters should elect people based simply on how they look or what their shared experiences are.

“I think it goes against MLK’s principle of judging someone by the content of their character, and not the color of their skin, which is a quote that I definitely take to heart a lot of times,” he said.

Tanner Glenn, a sophomore at UNC running his high school teacher’s campaign for the N.C. House, said he thinks the trend of identity politics is coming from changing demographics in America and the election of President Barack Obama, which encouraged voters to believe they can elect someone who represents their background or experiences.

“I think that this is becoming more and more of a possibility as we’re moving into this post-Obama America that’s more diverse and doesn’t accept this idea that they have to vote for someone just from one certain group who may share policy perspectives,” he said.

Opere said his campaign for student body president focused less on who he was personally and more on what he brought to the table, which he believed helped him appeal to a majority of the campus, instead of just minority voters.

“You know, we talked very little about my own personal story on purpose, because we knew that once we started doing that, it would start being more about identity politics,” he said.

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