I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”–Edward R. Murrow. 1958

[Note: it might be useful to read this post before you proceed.  It addresses some of the same points.]

Barb Knowles of the saneteachers blog suggested that I do a post on print media political campaigns vs. televised/video ones.

The famous line of demarcation in how media changed campaigning is the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. They were the first-ever televised debates. Kennedy, the charismatic candidate, won over the supremely un-charismatic Nixon.

It made such an impression on Nixon that he did not debate in his later winning campaigns. He believed, and he was probably right, that an extended televised appearance that wasn’t carefully stage-managed would hurt his image with the voters.

Indeed, in every campaign in which there have been televised debates, the more charismatic candidate has won.

Television, as I once wrote, is a force multiplier for charisma.

Back in the days of print-only campaign coverage, it was much harder for a charismatic candidate to win.  In the 1896 Presidential election, the famously charismatic populist speaker William Jennings Bryan lost to the un-charismatic William McKinley.

Both Bryan and McKinley played to their strengths during the campaign.  Bryan traveled the country at an incredible pace, giving more than 500 speeches. McKinley used his massive financial advantage to send other speakers on his behalf, and to control the coverage that appeared in print.

There can be no doubt that if television had existed in 1896, Bryan would have won. For one thing–and this is something political strategists still don’t understand–even negative television coverage of charismatic candidates is a win for them.  Even if some pundit comes on afterward to denounce the candidate, as long as video of him delivering his message is getting out, he is winning.

There was of course no television, or even radio, in 1896.  However, Bryan was so popular that decades later, he would record parts of his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech for posterity.  No doubt he was less brilliant an orator in his old age, but it is still powerful:

Print media is inherently less emotional than television and video.  It’s a more intellectual, less visceral activity, to read an article in the paper than to watch someone on television.

If you just read transcripts of Trump’s speeches or debate answers, you will see they are incoherent nonsense.  He rarely speaks in complete sentences, he repeats himself, he interrupts himself. It only works if you can see him delivering it. That visceral reaction is the nature of charismatic authority.

This, more than anything else, is the key difference between televised and print campaigning. Print is intellectual, television is emotional.

Before we begin, here’s some irony for you:

 

Well, I was obviously wrong when I predicted that Clinton would win comfortably.

To be honest, I screwed this up badly.  My gut instinct told me that Trump fit the model of a winning candidate, and  Clinton fit the model of a losing one. Why? Because of the all-important “charisma” factor, which I have now spent nearly seven years analyzing.

But because most polls said otherwise, and because most experts thought it was impossible, and because of all the appalling things Trump has done and said, I went with the conventional wisdom and assumed the charisma theory wouldn’t apply.

Instead, it was vindicated.

I had the following exchange on Twitter with Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist who wrote the original essay that introduced me to the charisma theory of politics:

graham

I know I’ve said it a million times, but read Graham’s essay. Parts of it are prescient:

The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull. Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were so similar in that respect that they might have been brothers. Good thing for the Democrats that their screen lets through an occasional Clinton, even if some scandal results.

Talking of which, this post of mine from 2010 was also rather disturbing to reread:

The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.

What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time…

…So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.

The point here is that even people like me and Graham, who had devoted a lot of time and thought to how this sort of thing could happen, failed to realize it even as it was happening.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about charisma, about rural nationalism, about political advertising–even about Vladimir Putin–and in this election, almost all of it played out like I would have expected, if I’d only trusted what I knew, rather than assuming that others knew better.

Of everything I’ve written about politics, I suppose this post was the most explicitly relevant:

The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign.  The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.

But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning.  Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.

The Republican I was thinking of was Palin. Trump wasn’t even on the radar at that point.

And, as it turned out, being undisciplined and arrogant was no hindrance to running a successful campaign.

That said, the truly arrogant ones here were political analysts–including myself–who refused to believe in what we were seeing; who stubbornly clung to the notion that a candidate as obnoxious and scandal-plagued as Trump could not win, even after he proved us wrong once.

If I had simply been honest with myself about how Trump’s campaign corresponded to everything I knew about how politics works, maybe I would have been more vocal about the surprisingly high probability he would win.  And that might have motivated more people on my side to do things differently.

Paradoxically, if more people had believed he could win, his chance of actually winning probably would have declined.

I remember when I was 15 years old reading in a book of military history about how, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon ignored some of his own long-standing tactical rules, leading to his defeat.  At the time, I made a mental note that ignoring one’s own beliefs was usually a bad idea.

The warfare analogy is pretty apt in a larger sense, too. Trump’s campaign resembled a lot of successful military campaigns throughout history, in the sense that it won by being smaller and more able to change and adapt quickly than its larger, better-funded, but also more conventional opponent. (This is also the same logic that leads to small startups defeating big corporations.)

Finally, the Trump campaign won by challenging conventional wisdom and proving it wrong.  Nearly all professional political strategists took for granted that you couldn’t win by appealing to nationalist sentiments.  Trump’s campaign challenged that idea, and proved it incorrect.

I’ll have much more later.  This is going to require a lot of work.

{Sung to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General“}

I am the very model of a charismatic candidate,
I have thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
From starting as a dark horse, I’ve become the odds-on favorite
Saying I will build a wall and then force Mexico to pay for it.
And though Establishment Republicans think I am despicable
Ev’ry charge they level at me has proved totally unstickable.
And even though I’ve said disgusting things about my progeny
And made so many statements that are dripping with misogyny–
By thwarting ev’ry action that the GOP has planned to date,
I’ve proved myself the model of a charismatic candidate.

My “Apprenticeship” in showbiz has undoubtedly done well for me–
I am so telegenic, all the major networks fell for me.
My domineering manner plays so well when I’m debating folks
It doesn’t even matter that I sometimes tell degrading jokes.
Believe me, folks, I’m so very, very big-league entertaining
That I have no need coherent policies to be maintaining.
I’ll be so much like Reagan, it will make your head spin, I insist–
Heads will spin so much it will all be like the film The Exorcist.
Since I’ve thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate.

 
In fact, when I know whether Judges “sign” on “bills” or not
When I’ve decided what to do with all the immigrants we’ve got–
When I’ve some idea what is and isn’t Constitutional–
When I’ve proved my economic plans are not delusional
When I have shown I will not always act impulsively–
When I behave towards women just a little less repulsively–
In short, when I have turned into my very living opposite–
You’ll say a better candidate has never run for office yet!
Though all my civic knowledge is just stuff I learned in real estate,
I am sure a brand-new wall will make our location really great.
And since a country is the only thing I’ve yet to brand to date,
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate!

From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other.  I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.

The idea is that charisma is what wins Presidential elections.

Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.

I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win.  But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.

I was right. Obama won re-election.

But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him.  Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.

Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.

Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up.  Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.

Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.

But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”

You would need more than that, though.  Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable.  He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people.  He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.

To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.

I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.

In 2012, I made a lot of fun of Romney for being a “generic Republican”.  It was comical how vanilla he was.  And that was boring.  He was the politician from central casting; nothing memorable about him.

And I firmly believe that is the reason he lost.

Enter Trump.

Trump is not boring.  Trump constantly commands the press’s attention.  He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him.  And he almost never backs down from it, either.

In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explicitly says that he uses this technique to promote stuff.  Whether it’s promising to build the World’s Tallest Building or a wall on the Mexican border, Trump knows this is how to get free media coverage.

Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.

And as far as “optics” go, he is right.  Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration.  When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”

The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate.  He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:

 

In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong.  I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.

Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies.  They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.

That is where charisma comes in.  Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.

Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people.  Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.

And there is a lot of evidence to suggest Hillary Clinton can’t, either.

My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw.  It’s not that at all.  Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that.  It’s a very rare ability.

Most people are afraid of public speaking.  This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc.  But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.

That’s the bad news for the Democrats.  The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.

Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.

And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out.  Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.

But there is one thing that should give them pause.  And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.

The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate.  So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard.  He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)

Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.

And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?

I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September.  He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year.  He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.

Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.

Will he succeed?

Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.

trump_the_art_of_the_deal
“The Art of the Deal”, by Donald Trump.  Image via Wikipedia, re-used under Fair Use

Donald Trump lists this as his second-favorite book, saying only the Bible is better. He also would include writing it as one of his major accomplishments in some of the early debates. He has written other books, but this is seemingly the only one he considers memorable. So, I decided to check it out.

It starts off with a chapter giving us a play-by-play account of a week in the life of Donald Trump, circa 1987. It seemed like an excuse to do a lot of name dropping. Trump likes to do that.

Fortunately, the book gets much better after that. Trump gives background on his early life, and resells some anecdotes from his real estate career. The real highlights of the book are the chapters about his purchases of Manhattan real estate. Trump clearly worked very hard to become knowledgeable about relevant zoning laws, and he deserves credit for the tenacity and thoroughness with which he put together many of his deals.

If the book ended after Chapter 7, I would have said I was pretty impressed. But it doesn’t–there are seven more chapters to go, and Trump’s flaws start to appear in these pages.

First comes Trump’s Atlantic City Casino adventure. Trump clearly knows less about casino gambling than about real estate. He seemingly views casinos as special lucky buildings that magically earn more money than regular ones. This is clear when he asserts “The New York Stock Exchange happens to be the biggest casino in the world.”

Wrong, Trump. Casinos are deliberately rigged against the players. The stock exchange isn’t. Trump apparently fails to appreciate this difference.

It gets worse. Trump goes on to describe an incident where the Holiday Inn Board of Directors was coming to inspect the site of a casino Trump was building. They were thinking of partnering with him, but wanted to see how construction was going.

Trump got worried that the construction crew didn’t look busy, and thought that might ruin the deal. So he told his crew to act like they were busy–didn’t matter what they did or whether it needed done. Just look busy.

This is bad enough. But then, one of the board members asked him why bulldozers were digging and refilling holes. Trump doesn’t say what BS line he used to get out of this. Can’t reveal all his secrets, I guess.

This wasn’t just dishonest; it was reckless and stupid. Trump didn’t offer any evidence for why he thought they might be mad if the crew wasn’t busy, just some nebulous feeling. And then he risked them definitely getting mad if they figured out he was deceiving them. He was lucky they were stupid.

Actually, the story of Trump’s life might be “he was lucky they were stupid”. He seems to reap huge benefits from the fact that the other guys make stupid mistakes.

As bad as the casino episode was, the worst part of the book was definitely the chapter on the United States Football League. Trump owned the New Jersey Generals. By his own description, he sounds like the owner from hell. He describes threatening to fire the coach if he didn’t give the ball to Herschel Walker more often. That is exactly the kind of meddling that wrecks a football team.

When the league failed because of his decision to move the season to the Fall to compete against the NFL, he proceeded to blame everybody but himself for it. It is in this chapter that you really see the Trump we are all familiar with today, always hurling insults around with no substantive point.

Eventually, it becomes clear that Trump has two major skills: knowing a good real estate deal (especially in Manhattan), and knowing how to play the press to get attention. He is a master at using the latter to enhance the former. He frequently would make controversial statements that would draw media coverage to his buildings.

In the section “Get the Word Out” in the chapter “Trump Cards”, he writes “[E]ven a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business.” And he goes on to say “The final key to the way I promote is bravado, I play to people’s fantasies. […] That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts.”

This is also the playbook for the Trump 2016 campaign:

1. Say outrageous stuff.
2. Benefit from all the media attention.
3. Rinse and repeat.

So far, the only press person I have seen call Trump out on this is Megyn Kelly. Maybe that is why Trump doesn’t like her. It’s not because she’s a woman, it’s because she actually read his book and is, as he would say, “totally wise to him”.

The proposed wall on the southern border is just the latest instance of Trump promising to build something big and gaudy to get the press’s attention. The only difference is that this time the only way he can get zoning permission from the government is to take over the government.

Throughout The Art of the Deal, there are all sorts of fascinating tidbits that would probably sink any other Republican candidate. For instance, Trump says then-President Ronald Reagan was “so effective a performer that he completely won over the American people.  Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything beneath that smile.”

Overall, the Trump we see in Art of the Deal is far more appealing than the one we see on the campaign trail. But even the more serious, younger Trump seems too arrogant to be President. People can change a lot in 30 years, and Trump may be a very different person now. So you can’t evaluate him as a candidate based just on his book.

However, I think everybody in the press covering his campaign should absolutely read the book, and then perhaps it will become clear to them just how plainly he is manipulating them to boost his political campaign.

I know a guy who’s charismatic as can be:

Everyone he meets is sure that he’s all right.

The kind of guy that they all would like to be

Is exactly what he is–at least, upon first sight.

When he’s among conservatives,

He seems like a regular Reaganite.

But when among the liberals he lives

He looks for social revolutions to ignite.

 

CHORUS:

Oh, everybody loves a charismatic guy, you see;

He’s everything that you could want a chap to be!

His political skills are really quite sublime;

He fools all of the people all the time!

 

With the fellas, he’s a manly man’s man;

Drinkin’ beer and talkin’ sports and trucks to ride–

But when he’s with the ladies, oh, for sure he can

Get in touch with his female side.

When he’s discussed ‘twixt hims and hers–

Though on specifics they may disagree–

Everyone on both sides readily concurs:

“He’s just the kind of man for me!”

 

(CHORUS)

 

So, no one knows exactly what his deal is–

His convictions and beliefs are a bit unclear.

But still, there’s no denying his appeal is

So overwhelming he just has to be sincere!

I once spoke to him, hoping to convey

How nice to have these diff’rent personae.

And he replied “It’s just that I can never say

For sure which one of them is me!”

 

(CHORUS)

 

[NOTE: You may ask “is this about a particular person?” Answer: No. It’s about a particular type of person.]

Republicans, such as Karl Rove, have been insinuating that Hillary Clinton is “too old” to run for President in 2016.  The Democrats make the obvious reply, which is that Ronald Reagan was even older than Hillary will be in 2016 when he was elected, and the Republicans think he was one of the greatest Presidents ever.  Some would say Clinton faces an unfair double-standard in this matter, because she is a woman, and thus people count her age against her more strongly than they did against Reagan.

Maybe that’s true. But that’s not the double-standard she should be concerned about. That would be the double-standard I always write about on here: the charisma double-standard.

American politics is biased in favor of “style over substance”, and so the most charismatic candidate almost always wins the Presidential election. Ronald Reagan was charismatic; Hillary Clinton is not.

This was proven, quite conclusively, by a Senator named Barack Obama in 2008.  Bear in mind that I say this as someone who supported Obama over Clinton, but Clinton’s resume was far better than Obama’s for the job of President. Yet he won, because he was a more likeable individual.

Hillary Clinton is–Obama’s claims to the contrary–not likeable enough. Mitt Romney had the same problem.  So did John Kerry.  Pretty much every Presidential election since since 1980 has come down to the question of who is more likeable, which, since most voters never get to meet the candidates in person, is in turn determined by charisma.

Now, you may say, this seems unfair to Hillary Clinton.  Yeah, it is.  It’s kind of silly to pick a President based on something so nebulous. But what else can we do? You can dedicate your life to studying politics and still get everything wrong.  So, the average person doesn’t have time to meticulously examine every facet of politicians.  They just vote based on who “seems better”. Hillary Clinton never had charisma.  Her husband did, which is probably why they have made such a successful team–she has the brains, he has the personality.

So, does this mean she can’t win the Presidency?  Not necessarily. The Republicans seemingly have no charismatic candidates lined up.  The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign.  The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.

But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning.  Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.

On one of the C-Spans the other night, they were showing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time For Choosing”, which he gave in support of Barry Goldwater. You can see that speech on YouTube here.

It is pretty much the standard Republican fare  in terms of content, but Reagan was clearly a far more charismatic and persuasive speaker than the Republicans of today.  I hate his line about the hungry being on a diet–it’s that sort of thing that got the Republicans branded as greedy and heartless.  I don’t know how the Goldwater campaign reacted to this, but I’m assuming their position on poverty was not “it’s all in your imagination”.

But what is really interesting to me about it isn’t so much the content of the speech, but the style.  I don’t think people would stand for one long speech, and moreover one filled with a lot of references to statistics and numbers.  I don’t know how accurate the numbers he gives are, but it seems to me this speech contains a lot more precise statistics than a modern speech.

To be fair, I think Reagan was a major beneficiary of the style over substance approach to politics, and probably this speech was shallow by the standards of the time. But my hypothesis is that a shallow 1964 political speech has more substance than an in-depth 2014 political speech.

I remember in 2008, then-Senator Obama’s campaign did a 30 minute “infomercial” on the networks a week or so before the election.  It was well-made, but more like a documentary, with stock footage and interviews and such.  I think the PR people for Obama’s campaign wouldn’t have  dared to spend the whole  half-hour on one guy giving a talk–that’s dull television.

To be absolutely clear, so nobody misunderstands, I’m not saying Obama had less substance than Reagan did–I’m saying I suspect the audiences of 2008 have much shorter attention spans than the audiences of 1964. But even that may be false, I guess–after all, Goldwater lost, although probably that had more to do with his loose-cannon attitude than anything else.

Now then, as I was saying, charisma is what wins Presidential elections.  The first debate proved this point quite conclusively; as Mitt Romney won it in the opinion of almost everyone simply because he seemed more energetic than the President did.  Naturally, I was shocked that Obama did so poorly, but nonetheless the general principle that charisma wins elections was upheld.

Obama returned to form, though, in the second debate and I think won it despite Romney’s best efforts to weird him out by stealing his material.  Obama is more likeable than Romney in general; so I really cannot think what happened in the first debate.  I still believe that Obama will win because of his charm, and leave the awkward, sometimes nervous looking former Governor wondering what happened.

Of course, in the matter of what they proposed to do things were very different.  Mitt Romney threw almost all conservative ideas out, and simply mimicked Obama to a great extent.  He talked about how rich people  do not need help; the middle class does, and spoke fondly of the need for government regulations.  In the second debate, he came out in favor of affirmative action, albeit awkwardly.  In the upcoming foreign policy debate, he will probably quote Howard Zinn approvingly.

Romney won the first debate, but in so doing he essentially promised to be super moderate–to out-Obama Obama, as it were.  Maybe Romney will just say whatever he thinks is likely to be popular at any given moment.  Or maybe there is a conscious and deliberate plan whereby Romney talks like the consummate “centrist” and then governs like a supply-side Republican.  But either way, the Etch-A-Sketch strategy worked like a charm.

In a way, I think these debates have been the culmination of what I talked about in this post.  There are two Rockefeller Republicans in these debates; one of them simply happens to be a Democrat.  There are differences in their personal style, in their manner, and in degrees of Rockefeller Republicanism, but that is what they both are campaigning as.

Obama is (usually) more charismatic, and so he gets the advantage among swing voters.  Of the remaining votes, I assume that most will be cast based on party loyalty.  The Democrats will vote for Obama and hope he will adhere more closely to their platform, even though he will still face opposition in Congress.  The Republicans will vote Romney because they want Obama out, and will vote automatically for the GOP candidate whoever he happens to be.

It bears repeating that Romney is probably not actually a Rockefeller Republican; he just plays one on TV.  He played a much more socially conservative kind of Republican in the primaries, and then relied on the public’s short attention span to affect his metamorphosis.   Most likely, he is a George W. Bush Republican: almost all of his policies suggest that he supports the same tax cuts and military interventionism that the last Republican did.  But saying that won’t win him any allies.

I think that Obama, meanwhile, would like to be more liberal on government spending, raising taxes, and so on.  He probably wants to be an FDR Democrat on the economy, but the political terrain is such that he can’t find a way to do that.  For one thing, I think he is more interested in achieving bipartisanship than FDR was.

Ultimately, I think Obama wins this on personal appeal.  Romney, outside of one fluky debate, seems rather arrogant and condescending.  Even in the debate he “won”, he seemed arrogant with the way he talked over the moderator.