Charisma is Priority One

February 17, 2015

Hate the reality all you want, but charisma and likability must be a screening criterion and litmus test for candidates in high profile races.

I’ve noticed a bit of a trend when I bring up the fact that low information voters choose candidates based on these type of peripheral variables to activist Democrats – many people ignore my comment and try not to talk about it.

I can just hear the thoughts running through people’s minds about how this shouldn’t be the case, knowledge and policy positions should be the most important, they would never pick a candidate based on non-substantive variables, etc. Yes – this may not be how you decide who to vote for but, like it or not, it is how a huge number of Americans decide.

Candidates for a party that has a huge registration deficit statewide (like Kansas Democrats) must use every advantage at their disposal to try to win. We can’t win elections by only appealing to high information voters. After losing the race, we can tell ourselves each and every day that we got the votes of the “smart people” that care about issues, but I doubt that will provide enough consolation. We must use what we know about how low information voters make choices to our advantage.

Folks like to talk about the revolutionary use of data within the Obama campaign. As someone who previously taught statistics, I love data more than most people and actually find it fun to analyze survey data. However, I also recognize that sitting around dissecting data isn’t going to get us anywhere unless we have a candidate who has the potential to win on stylistic variables. The Obama campaign used data to their great advantage, but President Obama was a charismatic star as a candidate. So, he had the “right stuff” for the data to make a difference in crafting a path to victory. If he had John Kerry’s or Mitt Romney’s personality, no amount of data leveraging would have won the race.

Candidates must have style and substance – not just substance. People can say style variables shouldn’t matter, but they do. So, we can either stick our heads in the sand and deny reality or start selecting candidates for big races who are more charismatic than the opposition. If we are equal or less on these variables, we will almost certainly lose.

To those who have a development program in mind for the long-time political players with substance who lack charisma, I’m sad to tell you it probably won’t work. For the most part, you can’t really teach charisma. The Republicans tried with Romney and he just ended up coming across bizarre and awkward when he was attempting to be something other than his robotic, rich guy self. You can improve someone’s public speaking abilities or policy knowledge. However, campaign staff are not miracle workers who can turn the socially lackluster into a charismatic superstar.

We need to pick candidates as we would choose a race horse if a huge monetary prize were on the line. In this scenario, you don’t enter the horse who has been around a long time simply because he’s seen a lot of race tracks, is a descendent of a winning horse, or because he’s a nice horse who eats carrots from your hand. If he can’t run fast enough to win, he’s not the right choice. A horse who is a strong, impressive runner that has the potential to outrun the rest of the field should be entered in the race. It doesn’t matter if the horse had winning parents or if it has a sweet and gentle carrot nibbling disposition. The potential to win is the only important consideration, if you want a shot at the prize.

Similarly, in the political arena, it comes down to who would be the strongest candidate for each race. This means appealing to both high and low information voters. We hurt the party when we choose candidates merely because they’ve been around the political scene for a long time or because we’re friends/friendly with them.

Put simply, choose winners to run and we’ll win more races.

  • Matthew L. Otte

    You seem to think we have a bench of candidates to choose from. Of course, style is important but if you don’t have it you have to find a way to win without it.

    You fight battles with the army you got; not the army you want.

    • Melissa Carlson

      So we don’t have a charismatic bench. That can’t be the end of the discussion.

      If you spot a charming young person, encourage them to run for down-ballot races. Tell them you will help, and then find them the help they need to win. Introduce them to veteran campaigners and the County party (even for nonpartisan races).

      Imo, we’ve been wasting a good opportunity. While the public sentiment is to the right, we’ve been exhausting our forces waging longshot House and Senate races. It’s time to regroup at the lowest levels — recruit and educate our most charismatic public-minded Democrats and fill utilities, towns/cities, community college seats. We need to be ready when basic physics brings the pendulum leftward, when, God willing, even wonks will win.

      • Melissa – some of the key is to make sure that when folks are courted the support that is promised actually happens. I’ve seen far too many folks be sold a bill of goods about the support they will get only to be dropped on their backside later on. For example, in Johnson County, we’ve had some very promising young candidates run for KS House, who were completely ignored after a moderate Republican emerged from the primary. I’m thinking of one person in particular who had real potential as a charismatic star. But, he may never run again because of the way the rug was pulled out from under him.

        • Melissa Carlson

          I agree that follow through is key. That’s why I said, “Tell them you will help, and then find them the help they need to win.”

          Each one of us can make it a personal responsibility to identify potential candidates.
          — The earlier the better.

          — No race is too small.

          • Agreed – I just noted in my reply to Matthew above that rank and file Dems need to reach out to potential candidates. Synchronicity! I also agree that no race is too small provided that the person has a passion for that race. We need to leverage what folks are enthusiastic about. If someone is very interested in state politics but not as much in city/county level races, I don’t think there is anything wrong with encouraging their passion by pointing them toward a run for KS House rather than a city council role.

      • If you are talking about U.S. Senate and Congressional races, I understand your frustration as these are often long shots. However, the candidates for these races become the public face of the party during most election cycles, as they are they only ones with televised debates and TV ads. If you give up on these races, it damages the image of the party. While it would be nice to win a few of these, what is most important in the short term is putting forward impressive candidates for high profile races to strengthen the party image.

    • Keep in mind that I’m talking about our selections for major races like Governor, Congressional districts, etc. And, actually, we do have some charismatic folks in the party. I’ve seen them when I traveled the state in 2010. A lot of them won’t run or run again because they know too much about the type of support you get (or don’t get) in some of these races. And, some of them probably aren’t stepping up for other reasons. I’ll name a name or two to try to illustrate my point. For one example, I think Josh Svaty (former Sec. of Agriculture under Sebelius) would be an excellent candidate for a major race. He’s extremely charismatic, if you’ve never had the chance to meet him. Another example of someone who I’d like to see get back into the fray would be Dennis McKinney who would be a great choice for CD-1.

      • Matthew L. Otte

        Our selections? I don’t have a say in who chooses to run. I do have a say in who I will nominate in the primary. A healthy party has a good fight over this nomination. A wounded party doesn’t. Who challenged any Democrats this year in a Primary and in which of these races did the better candidate lose?
        If your criticism is focused on our party’s leadership and their candidate recruitment efforts then Carpe Deim! The big chair is vacant and there is only one other hat in the ring.

        • Yes – leadership is key as many, if not most, candidates are recruited by someone in leadership at either the county or state party levels. These are the “choices” I am referring to. We need more and better recruiting! Frankly, we also need more rank and file Dems reaching out to those they would like to see run for a particular office and encouraging them personally – this often means as much to potential candidates as being invited by leadership. And, once recruited, we need to make sure folks get the support they were promised during the recruiting process, as this is a huge reason why so many folks who have run previously aren’t continuing to run. Regarding the chair position, I would certainly consider pursuing it, if it were a paid position. Unfortunately, that isn’t how things are set up currently. I’m also a bit too outspoken for some people’s tastes. So, even if I ran at some point, I’m sure there would be a faction working strongly against me.

  • I agree in part (but only in part) about the “build the bench” philosophy. I agree we need to find and nurture promising young candidates. I don’t agree that you can’t bring a fresh face to a major race and have success. High information, activist Democrats like to emphasize experience, sometimes to the detriment of the party. I think readiness and fit for a particular race is far more important than experience in some cases. Most mainstream voters don’t give a hoot about experience, they want to feel inspired and excited by the candidate. Barack Obama beating out Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2008 and beating John McCain for the presidency is a great example of this phenomenon. The experience argument was beaten to death and, in the end, charisma and inspiration won out – big time.