It’s Character and Likeability, Stupid

by | Mar 5, 2020 | Articles

President Clinton’s line, “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” had great resonance in his 1992 campaign. It captured the underlying angst of the electorate about the economic conditions at that time. During this election cycle, virtually all media outlets have been overlooking a different voter concern that’s bubbling beneath the surface: “It’s Character and Likeability, Stupid.”

James Clyburn, however, hit the mark by highlighting this concern on the eve of the South Carolina primary when he strongly endorsed Joe Biden. Clyburn stated: “I know his heart, I know who he is, I know what he is.” Speaking of his late wife’s views, he said: “there is nobody who Emily loved as a leader in this country more than she loved Joe Biden.” “He knows us,” he said. Clyburn’s words highlighted character, dignity, trust, empathy, and admiration.

Clyburn’s message touched a massive nationwide audience, well beyond African Americans in his home state. It was a powerful reminder of the stark contrast between the character and likeability of Joe Biden versus the “personality” of Donald J. Trump (to put it diplomatically).

In past elections, character and likability were routinely discussed in the media as factors in the minds of voters (e.g., Pres. Bush 43: “someone I’d like to have a beer with”). Whether it’s wise or not, people generally want to vote for a person they like; someone they wouldn’t mind seeing and hearing on TV, YouTube, and Facebook for at least the next four years. If this wasn’t a factor, a lot of ink would have been spilled writing about the job performance of Presidents Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, and Michael Dukakis.

In discussions regarding non-Bernie voters, the media and pundits assumed that the Super Tuesday voters rejected his far-left policy positions. That may be true. But they overlooked the fact that anti-Bernie folks — both swing voters and Democrats not in his camp — could be turned off by his anger and unlikability (e.g., Hillary Clinton: “Nobody likes him”). Journalists and the punditry have been over-intellectualizing their analysis, focusing incessantly on demographics, policy positions, funding, organization, ground game, and where the candidate sits along the spectrum of moderate to liberal. This technical analysis might be confused as political “science”, at the expense of considering the “poetry” of campaigning. After all, we are talking about a distinct form of marketing and sales here.

These two qualities of character and likeability contribute to a worry – perhaps subconscious – that Bernie Sanders cannot “beat Trump,” separate and apart from the Socialism factor. The media did not – and has not – acknowledged that part of “beating Trump” requires that the opposing candidate possess these qualities. Voters likely envision Bernie on the debate stage and see the contrast between Trump’s display of false confidence and apparent calmness with Bernie’s amped up aura of fury and disdain, delivering his lines both red-faced and raggedly. It’s not a good look. Voters in South Carolina told me as much during my door-to-door canvassing in the days prior to the primary.

Witness Mike Bloomberg’s campaign: he poured hundred of millions of advertising dollars into the Super Tuesday states, and it mesmerized the media. They seemed to believe that money was his best and most important asset (how about his record as Mayor?). The voters then saw Bloomberg, the advertised product, on the debate stage. They didn’t buy it. He was widely perceived as an arrogant, disconnected billionaire who believes that his money is king, over all else. They saw an insensitivity to women and people of color and, yes, they heard his voice and saw his facial expressions. This is a job interview. And those making the hiring decisions (the voters here) often reject qualified candidates based upon unlikeability alone.

Is this all superficial? Yes. Does it affect the outcome of elections? No doubt.

The media’s focus elsewhere, and not on these two intangibles, can cause them to skew the opinions of voters by making characterizations and prognostications that are shaky or unfounded. This is dangerous. Reporting gets fused with opinion, and opinions and punditry affect voting and outcomes.

For example, did blacks in Nevada and South Carolina refrain from voting for Mayor Pete because they did not like or trust him? Or, rather, was it drummed into their heads by the media (indirectly) that he is not liked, respected or trusted by blacks? We’ll never know. South Carolinians made it clear to me – while anecdotally to be sure – that they just did not know enough about Mayor Pete. Did the media give him the attention he deserved for his extraordinary victory over 22 candidates in winning Iowa? Nope. Did they discuss his record as Mayor in lifting up all the citizens in his city? No. Did they imply, by their comments about a lack of black support, that he was antagonistic and unhelpful to blacks in his city? Perhaps.

Voters have serious concerns about Trump’s mental illnesses (see my blog post here), his instability, lack of empathy, corrupt activities, and incessant dishonesty. Isn’t it time for the media to resurrect discussion of the “character issue” during the balance of this race? Instead of shaking their heads in disbelief as they obsess over his barrage of tweets, perhaps the media and punditry should interview voters instead of merely talking to each other.