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.