Does a Presidential Candidate Have to Be Likable?

Roundup: Media's Take

John Tierney, in the NYT (Feb. 22, 2004):

[John] Edwards has been criticized for not having enough government experience, but a pleasant disposition can overcome a lot of handicaps. Intellectuals made fun of Eisenhower's mangled syntax, but they were outnumbered by voters wearing"I Like Ike" buttons. Gary Hart's candidacy in 1988 was ended by his sexual indiscretion, but Bill Clinton survived his, thanks in no small part to his charm. Al Gore may have been a better debater than George W. Bush, but the audience was put off by his supercilious manner.

"A majority of Americans disagreed with Ronald Reagan's policies in 1984, but he won because they liked him personally," said Mr. Luntz, who has advised Republican candidates."People look at presidential candidates in a special way because they can't get away from the president. They can ignore a senator or governor, but a president will be in their living rooms for four years. At a minimum they have to like him."

Michael Deaver, the crafter of Mr. Reagan's image, said that in his cheerfulness Mr. Edwards reminded him of Mr. Reagan, as did Mr. Edwards's response to criticisms by Mr. Kerry.

"Edwards responded to Kerry's negative statement by saying, 'Well, I wouldn't put it that way. I would say it this way,'" Mr. Deaver recalled."That was exactly the way Reagan would rephrase a negative question and put a positive twist on it."

Daniel Hill, the author of"Body of Truth," an analysis of body language, has studied the candidates' styles by tracking 23 facial expressions during televised debates. He counts, for instance, the number of"social smiles" using just the mouth,"genuine smiles" using the eyes and mouth and signs of disgust or anger.

"Dean consistently showed anger by pressing his lips together or tensely holding his mouth slightly open," Mr. Hill said."Last fall, Kerry was showing definite signs of contempt and disgust by raising his upper lip, but that's gone now. He's trying to be more likable by smiling more, but rarely can he get past the social smile to the genuine smile. Edwards gets there much more often. He conveys the most optimism, and lately he's been adding gravitas by knitting his eyebrows to show that he feels the pain of the other America."

If Mr. Edwards wins the charm contest, why is Mr. Kerry winning the primaries? Likability is not everything, especially in times of war. Richard Nixon proved that in 1968, when he defeated everyone's favorite uncle, Hubert Humphrey. Just as voters then worried about the Vietnam War and social unrest, today's voters are concerned about Iraq and terrorism, and they may prefer Mr. Kerry, a war hero, even if they don't particularly want to invite him for drinks.

When Americans were asked to describe Mr. Kerry in a national poll last week by the Pew Research Center, two of the most common words of praise were"good" and"qualified," while two criticisms were"arrogant" and"phony." The strengths of his character and experience outweighed the objections to his personality, giving him an overall favorable-to-unfavorable rating of two to one. Mr. Edwards had the same favorable rating.

comments powered by Disqus