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.
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.