Saturday, January 24, 2004

Personality Politics

Just what is a "Presidential" personality? And do people really vote on the basis of a candidate personality?

In 2000 it certainly played a role in Gore's slide from shoe-in to victim of a stolen election. People tended to think that Gore was cold, uncaring, wooden, and humourless. That sounds like a certain current 'frontrunner', doesn't it? While W, right or wrong, was seen as genuine, easy-going, warm and caring. According to DSM-IV, sociopaths are very good at creating that kind of superficial impression.

In my last post, I noted that only 50% of voters found Dean's personality Presidential, while 86% found that Kerry's was. There seems to be a contradiction, but maybe not.

The latter poll's question is likely flawed. There is no control which would indicate that people would vote on the basis of this impression of having a "Presidential personality". If anything, the evidence is just the opposite. If they wanted "Presidential" as exemplified by Kerry, voters would not have dinged Gore on his personality. There are other factors of the character frame of self-aggrandizing fibber that the press hung around Gore's neck, but as long as one can agree that Kerry's personality is more like Gores than W's, one can accept that there may be little correlation between Presidential personality and actual Presidential preference.

Now Edwards is by no means cold, aloof, or stiff, yet he scores second only to Kerry in the Presidential personality poll. He does not seem especially stern or controlled, if anything, he seems relaxed, genuine, and personable. He is by far the closest in personal charisma and style to Bill Clinton of any of the candidates. I think this may be where the numbers come from with Edwards and to a lesser extent, Clark. People continue to associate the personal style of Clinton, an articulate and personally warm Southern charm, with being Presidential.

What really waxes me off is that Lieberman also elbows out Dean on "Presidential personality". So possibly self-righteous self-regard mixed in with priggishness and a dollop of the bore is Presidential. I doubt it, but Joe is a steady and (mostly) disciplined campaigner capable of staying religiously on message, and glacially placid.

I suspect that much of this feeling in the electorate that Dean's personality is an issue comes from the media, but a portion of it also comes with his intensity, not a trait much noted in Presidents in the fifty years, at least. The President whom Dean reminds me of most as an orator is Teddy Roosevelt. He had the same masculine, vociferous delivery, and same fireplug physique and aggressive gestural repetoire. I think if Teddy came back to run for President, he might throw a scare into a few people, too.

A portion of the perception that Dean's personality is somewhat forbidding comes from people not seeing his family. Edwards has made extensive use of his family in recent weeks, to very good effect. Great family appearances are not an automatic ticket to nomination, certainly; Graham has a large, attractive, and loving family whom all admired. But I expect Judy's appearance on the Sawyer interview will do wonders for Dean in the coming weeks. It was a very good move that indicates to the that campaign had a very good handle on what needed to be done. The polls seem to bear out the team's instincts and timing. They acted with a speed and judgment that will likely go down as one of the great saves in political history when Dean comes back from this dip to take the nomination and the Presidency. Then bleeding has apparently ceased in NH. I have no doubt that all those folks working their rears off in the ice up there are going to pull this out and grab a ticket out of NH, maybe even a win.

Dean may need to be seen by voters in Presidential situations to establish him acting "Presidential" in the voters' minds. Too often, in the press coverage Dean has been getting at least, he is glad-handing or stumping and looking fierce. I hope to see some facilities tours, diplomatic situations, conferences, and heavily advanced speaking engagements, which emphasize both his personal warmth and his potential for true gravitas. It's more scripted and media oriented than the Dean campaign usually is, but all those undecideds need to be reassured that Dean is a 'safe' choice. His media profile is what is netting Kerry these surges. The media is going to be making more and more of a difference to the growth of the campaign, and Dean needs to be ready for prime time, all the time.

One bright spot is that Dean has gotten more free FM airtime than probably any candidate in history with the Rebel Yell parodies and remixes bouncing among the shock jocks and drive time Rush wanna-bes. His name recognition is probably through the roof with some very unusual demographics who might like what they hear. This might do wonders for our GOTV in the 18-25 demographic :)


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