Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Winner Will Have Charisma

TAPPED blogger Sarah Laskow believes that Mitt Romney's "lack of charisma on the trail could very well cost him whatever chance he has at winning the Republican nomination and the presidency" Why?
Charming candidates win elections: George W. Bush, whatever his other flaws, could be very charming; John Kerry, not so much. Hillary Clinton might have beat Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, if only her smile was as endearing as his.
This, as regular readers of this blog know, gets it entirely backwards. Winning causes candidates to "acquire" charisma; losing causes politicians to lose it -- or, as Brendan Nyhan put it a ways back, "the political climate creates charisma." Clinton's smile would have been (thought to be) more endearing than Obama's had she won; Kerry would have been (thought to be) the charmer, while Bush's locker-room style would have been (thought to be) an arrogant smirk.

The easiest way to see this, of course, is to compare press impressions of the personalities of presidents as they go from popular to unpopular over time (i.e. LBJ 1964 vs. 1968, RMN 1972 vs. 1974, JEC 1976 vs. 1980, GHWB from 1988 to 1992 -- yes, all four of those had charisma for a while, at least per the press). Or, for losing nominees, from spring to fall -- Kerry wasn't charmless in spring 2004, and McCain had plenty of charisma around the time he knocked Romney out in spring 2008.

Don't worry: if Mitt Romney wins the nomination, he'll turn out to have had plenty of charisma; if he wins in November 2012, he'll have charisma to spare. At least until (or unless) things start going badly.


  1. Makes me think about sports. A losing team's clubhouse atmosphere is said to be "uptight" whereas a winning one is "disciplined." Or, if it's looser, they're either "relaxed" or "unfocused" depending on whatever's in the win column.

  2. I think this has a lot to it, but I'd caution against going too far in reaction--do you think every politician has the precise same amount of charisma, and/or that disparities in charisma between politicians have precisely zero effect?

  3. There's, of course, retroactive evaluations.
    But, you can't look at Pawlenty these days and say he's charismatic....the guy is just a flat board.

  4. "he'll turn out to have had plenty of charisma" -- I love what you're doing with verb tenses there.

  5. At the risk of violating an Iron Law, it seems to me that charisma is always a function of expertise. (The opposite isn't necessarily true; think of a really successful and boring science professor, for example).

    Expertise here doesn't refer to widely-acknowledged accomplishment, rather, its expertise in the sense of being really good at a specific exercise. Palin is probably a good example here. Her speech at the '08 convention was a lifetime in the making; she was beautiful and charismatic as hell. Then when she is caught off-guard by a generic question in NH the other day, she mangles a Paul Revere answer, and in the process looks as charismatic as a trainee at the DMV, on an understaffed day, 15 minutes before lunch.

    So while I agree that nominee Romney would be deemed charismatic by the right-wing mythmakers at Fox News, I don't believe Joe Average Voter will ever regard him as charismatic, net of hype, because - Romney won't be. Because he doesn't instinctively hew to the partisan identifiers of the modern Right. His dalliance with Republicans is forced by the fact that there's no other road for him to the Presidency. He's not good at being a Republican, and he never will be, and thus he will never be perceived (organically) as charismatic, whatever else Fox News says.

    Full disclosure, I think this expertise issue goes a long way toward explaining why Democratic national candidates are so often perceived as non-charismatic, with lack of charisma being seen as a fatal flaw. Democrats generally perceive government as beneficial; as such they are much more likely to be interested on perfecting the machinery of government to improve society.

    Problem is, such wonkery is generally far less appealing than populism to the electorate. So liberal wonks attempt to adopt populist miens in national elections, and they're simply awful at it. Al Gore's lack of charisma when he rolled his eyes at Bush in their debate did not arise from a personality flaw; it was a result of the fact that Gore so obviously, pitifully sucked at it. Or HRC's painfully forced pacings, a poor echo of her husband's natural orations, is not a sign of a flaw in her. She's just not good at that sort of thing. Democrats often aren't.

  6. Um, this just ignores the claim it purports to treat. Winning may create charisma, but surely it isn't the only thing that creates charisma. And the fact that winning adds to charisma doesn't prove that charisma plays no role in determining who wins. Schematically, it goes like this: just b/c winning --> charisma it does not follow that charisma -/-> winning (with "-->" meaning "contributes to," not "singularly causes").

  7. Anon, Michael:

    Yeah, I'm making a strong claim, stronger than necessary in this context. But I think it's correct. Basically, I'd separate out "campaigning ability" from "charisma"; I'd say the former is real (if often overused and misused), but the latter is entirely created by winning.

  8. Charisma fades with the perception of failure, but it doesn't work in the opposite direction. Contrary to the OP, no one ever regarded LBJ, RMN, or GHWB as charismatic.

    Charisma would seem to be real, overvalued by the frustrated rock critics who constitute the campaign press, but not nothing. My own guess would be that a surfeit of personal identification such as that enjoyed by Reagan or Clinton or Obama (in the latter case, judging by the spread between his job approval and his personal approval) means you don't quite scrape bottom in shallow waters where a less-admired President would run aground. The only real counter-example is Carter, but his presidency was legendary for its incompetence in addition to being anomalous in several other ways.

  9. kth, fwiw a friend of mine met Nixon once, backstage at a school play of his granddaughter's (who was a classmate of this friend), and found him utterly, magnetically charming in person. This was only a few years before RMN's death, and my friend is a highly politically aware and informed left-liberal. So he must have had something.

  10. With all due respect, the view in the open that charisma is an inevitable byproduct of winning is quite an unsatisfying way to discuss an admittedly vague term.

    I don't read many partisan left-wing commentators, but I'll nevertheless hazard a guess that virtually no one (in their left, er, right mind) ever described Al Gore as charismatic. Maybe here and there re: his movie. But never in his political career.

    Gore's loss in the 2000 election was so heartbreaking that one can hang it on several technicalities: first, of course, the hanging chads, which per a later review by the Miami Herald would have netted Gore a 3-vote victory if all had fallen across the state's several million cast votes.

    Next you could point to the inexplicable 1700 Buchanan votes in highly liberal Palm Beach County, which votes flew away from Gore as a result of the unfortunate butterfly ballot. After that you get to meta-issues, like the great tragic loss of life from the AIDS epidemic, which surely cost Gore far more votes in South Florida than his losing margin across the state.

    If we hold to the logic that winners are charismatic and losers are not, then the thing that makes Gore not charismatic is the poorly-designed ballot in Palm Beach County. Or those damn chads. Or AIDS.

    You could make such a claim re: Gore's charisma - heck, you can argue pretty much whatever you like - but with all due respect, I'd submit that such an argument is so transparently flawed that I can't think of what else to say other than that we'd just have to agree to disagree.

  11. Forgive the following Howard Beale-ish rant: if we're talking the Merriam-Webster "charisma", we mean a "personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure". If Romney wins the Presidency, he will have this 'special popular loyalty', otherwise no such luck?

    Suppose 2012 is one of the elections not decided at the margin, and suppose further that all factors point Republican. Under those conditions, as has been pointed out here and elsewhere, the winner of the Presidency will be decided by the Republican primary.

    Furthermore, as is often discussed in questioning the legitimacy of Palin's candidacy, the winner of that primary will be the candidate that curries the greatest favor with Republican power brokers.

    Surely Republican power brokers pay some attention to "special popular loyalty" when determining which candidate can kiss their ring. This can be due to strenghtening the cause in a potentially close election, or even simply vanity. However, the guess here is that "special popular loyalty" takes a backseat to "which candidate can best serve my interests" when the power brokers are weighing their alternatives. Which is not meant as a dis to power brokers, mind you. Its what I would do if I were a power broker. Wouldn't you?

    Therefore, equating victory in a (non-margin) election with possession of this "special popular loyalty" is essentially to say that power brokers are trying to find the candidate whom they will support. Again, arousing "special popular loyalty" must be a perk in a candidate considered for such support.

    According it so much importance to infer that all winning candidates must possess it strikes me as a wee bit naive where the motives of the power brokers are concerned.


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