Presidential Politics: Does Likeability Matter?
William Lowndes was a congressman from South Carolina who served in the early part of the 19th century. He was once asked to describe who should serve as chief executive.
"The presidency is not an office to be either solicited or declined," he said.
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes didn't even vote for himself. He saw it as unseemly. And in 1916, Woodrow Wilson called campaigning "a great interruption to the rational consideration of public questions."
John Dickerson of Slate Magazine just wrote an extensive series on how we evaluate presidential candidates and the problems with it.
"For the first, really, hundred years of American history, the presidency was the kind of thing that no man who actively sought it was worth the job," Dickerson says. "Now we've turned it totally on its head."
Dickerson says that early on in American politics, the candidates were essentially picked by the political elites, and it was the elites who knew who the men were who were running for president.
"They judged them based on their interactions with them, their sense of honor, and character, and they put them forward," Dickerson says. Nowadays, Dickerson contends, nobody would want to go back to that kind of system because it allows for all kinds of corruption. We've made a shift, he says, to the importance of a public presentation of the presidency.
"As you move into the television age you start to have candidates who are appealing and powerful in the moment, in the presentation of themselves," he says. "That puts a greater emphasis on the public person, which is a very important part of the presidential role, but not the whole bundle, and we don't pay too much attention to all of the other important parts of the presidency."
The way we measure our presidential candidates these days is a complicated formula. Mo Fiorina, a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has researched the correlation between likeability and winning the White House.
He says the common cliche that the more likeable candidate always wins isn't the case. "There's very little historical evidence for it," he says. After looking at research back to 1952 that evaluated how people evaluated candidates in personal terms, Fiorina says likeability "appeared to be a minor factor. The fact is we decide who is likeable after they win, not before they win."
Does that mean the likeability gap between Mitt Romney and President Obama is irrelevant?
Fiorina thinks so. "If I had been advising Mitt Romney, I would have said in the end the American people are not going to decide who they are going to have a beer with, because the American people know that they are not going to have a beer with any of these people," he says. "They are going to decide on the base of who they know is going to do the job."
Dickerson says that "to do the job" and to get anything done requires a president to make deals and "be malleable". But the whole concept of making a deal is "something you never want to admit to" on the campaign trail. "When you're on the campaign trail, everything is always in super black and white," he says. So what's key to a candidate is "to know when to take a good deal, and the best possible deal, to actually get something done and make progress, rather than being so resolved that nothing gets done."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
William Lowndes was a congressman from South Carolina who served in the early part of the 19th century. And he was once asked to describe who should serve as chief executive. He said - and I'm quoting here. He said, "The presidency is not an office to be either solicited or declined."
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes didn't even vote for himself. He saw it as unseemly. And in 1916, Woodrow Wilson called campaigning a great interruption to the rational consideration of public questions.
JOHN DICKERSON: For the first, really, hundred years of American history, the presidency was the kind of thing that no man who actively sought it was worth the job. Now, we've turned it totally on its head.
RAZ: That's John Dickerson of Slate Magazine. He's just written an extensive series on how we evaluate presidential candidates and the problems with it. And he points to a key example. This one courtesy of Bill Clinton...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Are you ready for a new president?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
RAZ: ...at a campaign rally for then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008, a week before Election Day.
CLINTON: If you have any doubt about Senator Obama's ability to be the chief executive - that's what the Constitution calls the president - just think about all of you, (unintelligible).
DICKERSON: He pointed to the throngs - remember those huge rallies Obama had. He said, just look at you.
CLINTON: He has executed this campaign.
DICKERSON: He has executed this campaign. And the idea of being, you know, campaigning is governing. But it's not.
RAZ: Our cover story today is the way we measure our candidates for president, why likability might not matter as much as you think, and much, much more from John Dickerson in a moment on what should really matter. But first, the week in politics summed up pretty succinctly in last night's "Saturday Night Live" sketch on this past Wednesday's debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
CHRIS PARNELL: (as Jim Lehrer) Excuse me, Governor. Mr. President.
JAY PHAROAH: (as President Barack Obama) I'm sorry. Yeah. Yeah. What's up?
PARNELL: (as Jim Lehrer) Mr. President, Governor Romney has just said that he killed Osama bin Laden. Would you care to respond?
PHAROAH: (as President Barack Obama) No. You two go ahead.
RAZ: OK, that was "SNL's" take. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now. Mara, apparently, the president watched highlight reels of his performance of the debate, not the "SNL" reel that we just heard. What do we know about what he's learned from his performance?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, we know that when he watched them, they looked a lot worse than he thought. And they're really going back to the drawing board about what his debate strategy should be. The best explanation we have for why he performed so poorly in Denver was twofold: One is they have a strategy of not wanting to be negative and harsh; but he also didn't take opportunities to bring up the 47 percent, to correct Romney on any number of things.
He now has to go into the next debate with a more aggressive debate strategy. And that's going to be tough because the next debate is a town hall format. It's really difficult to be negative to your opponent when you're being asked questions by ordinary people from the audience.
RAZ: You know, Mara, before the debates, we heard a lot of folks saying, look, debates don't matter. They don't move polls. But, I mean, looking at the polls that have come out after the debates, especially a slate of them that came out yesterday, I mean, Romney got a pretty significant bounce.
LIASSON: Look, debates move polls. Historically, debates haven't been determinant of the outcome. John Kerry got an eight-point bounce out of the debates. He still lost. You've seen polls now that show Mitt Romney getting anywhere from three to five points nationally and in some of the battleground states. The question is, how durable is that going to be?
RAZ: Just about a month left before Election Day, President Obama has now raised a billion dollars for his re-election campaign. About four million individual donors around the country have contributed to that. Does that tell us anything about where his campaign is headed for the next four weeks?
LIASSON: Well, it shows you that the Obama fund-raising machine and the grassroots apparatus and the Internet lists that they compiled in 2008 are alive and well, and maybe even expanded. And I think one lesson to take away from the money race this time is that a dollar raised by a candidate or a campaign means a lot more, goes a lot longer and can be used more effectively than a dollar raised by a superPAC. Not only do you get the lower advertising rates on television, but you also can control where your money is going.
RAZ: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Remember that moment in 2008 when Hillary Clinton was asked about the likeability gap between her and then-Senator Barack Obama.
SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON: Well, that hurts my feelings.
SCOTT SPRADLING: I'm sorry, Senator.
SPRADLING: I'm sorry.
CLINTON: But I'll try to go on.
CLINTON: He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad.
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: You're likable enough, Hillary. No doubt about it.
CLINTON: Thank you so much.
RAZ: Likable enough, as in who would you rather have a beer with. You've heard that question before. And the answer is the more likable candidate always wins.
MO FIORINA: I think it's a very common cliché, but there is very little historical evidence for it.
RAZ: That's Mo Fiorina. He's a professor of political science at Stanford, and he's researched the correlation between likeability and winning the White House.
FIORINA: In our research, we went back and looked at how people since 1952 had evaluated the candidates in personal terms and found that it really appeared to be a minor factor.
RAZ: A minor factor?
FIORINA: Oh, yes. Absolutely. You'd be surprised - the fact is that often we decide who is likable after they win, not before they win.
RAZ: So there's no evidence, you're saying, based on the likeability polls that have been taken since 1952 that any presidential candidate has edged out his opponent because they were liked more by the voters? You're saying there's no evidence for that?
FIORINA: Yeah. We couldn't find that. For example, if you look at the data I published on 1980, Jimmy Carter was in personal terms the highest-ranked Democratic candidate of the era. He's a Sunday school teacher. He is loyal to his wife and family. He embodies American values.
And Ronald Reagan at this period, he was to many people a scary person. He was prone to making crazy comments, like trees cause more smog than cars. He said all the nuclear waste produced in the country in a year could be stored under your desk. Americans really were scared of this guy, but they decided they simply couldn't take another four more years of Carter.
RAZ: So if Mitt Romney were to look at your study, he could conclude that that likeability gap between him and President Obama is irrelevant. It's not going to make a difference.
FIORINA: Yes. If I had been advising Mitt Romney, I would have said don't worry about whether you're likable or not. In the end, the American people are not going to decide who they'd rather have a beer with, because the American people know they're not going to have a beer with any of these people. They're going to decide on the base of who they think can do the job.
RAZ: Mo Fiorina. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Earlier, we heard from John Dickerson of Slate Magazine. He's just written a series of articles about the way we evaluate presidential candidates. And he says it's changed over the past few decades and not for the better because of what you might call the permanent campaign.
DICKERSON: And it just increasingly become more and more a public event in politics. You know, in the very beginning, it was essentially elites picking candidates. And so those elites in a lot of ways knew who the men were who were running for president. They judged them based on their interactions with them, their sense of honor and character, and they put them forward. Now, nobody would want to go back to that system because that, of course, allows for all kinds of corruption.
But as you move into the television age, you start to have candidates who are appealing and powerful in the moment, in the presentation of themselves. And that puts a greater emphasis on the sort of public person, which is a very important part of the presidential role, but not the whole bundle. And we don't pay too much attention to all of the other important parts of the presidency.
RAZ: One of the worst things to be called as a candidate is a flip-flopper, a waffler, somebody who doesn't stick with their guns. But you say actually that should be a virtue.
DICKERSON: It should be in some cases. I mean - and in a lot of cases, because when you - when you're on the campaign trail, everything is always in super black and white. But when you have to make deals to get anything done, and it's - and even the notion that you have to make a deal to get something done in Washington is on the campaign trail, something you never want to admit, but it happens in a system (unintelligible) shared powers and also of two parties, and so a president needs to know how to be malleable, certainly not to trade away principles, but know when to take a good deal, and the best possible deal, to actually get something done and make progress, rather than just being so resolved that nothing gets done.
RAZ: Let's talk about decisiveness. You - for your articles, your series of articles, you spoke to military officers and executive officials who worked in the White House, administrators there. Many of them said decisiveness was the most important quality for a president. Why is that?
DICKERSON: Because no president ever, as President Obama said in a Vanity Fair interview with Michael Lewis, no president's ever brought a decision that's easy, except for perhaps picking the art that goes in the Oval Office. And it's never a sort of A or B. It's always a series of probabilities. And even if he finally comes down on a decision, there is still probably a 40 percent, 45 percent chance it'll go wrong. And what the rest of your administration, and particularly on issues that have to deal with the military and military action, people need decisions so they can go about their business and they can't wait so that everybody else could go and do their jobs.
RAZ: You do not believe that a president has to be a great public speaker.
DICKERSON: No. If you look at the presidency, we think of Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy as these people who could just speak and the country would follow right along. But when you look at what Kennedy was able to accomplish in office with education or Medicare, he wasn't that successful. And Ronald Reagan was never able to convince people to support increased defense spending, nor his - some of his efforts to fight communism in South America.
And then in the end, what may be the more powerful talent that Reagan and Clinton certainly had, it was knowing where public opinion is heading. And FDR, of course, was the great example - he said, I can never go further than the American people will let me - is that knowing where public opinion is generally located and then shaping that public opinion to your ends, rather than this notion that Chris Christie mentioned in the Republican convention, which is sort of grabbing the people and hauling them where you want them to go. That's not - that doesn't work too well for presidents.
RAZ: Bill Clinton famously called the White House the nicest facility in the federal penal system.
DICKERSON: This is a distortion - the presidency is a distorting office. And Woodrow Wilson also said that there are blessed moments when I forget for a second that I'm president. You have to keep secrets. You have to be able to compartmentalize. One minute, you're dealing with a matter of national security; the next minute, you're congratulating the women volleyball team; and the next minute, you're visiting a school.
And then you live in this weird fishbowl in which if you golf too much, you get criticized; in which if you say the wrong thing once, even if you said it a thousand times the correct way, you say it once, you're immediately leading the news that evening. The kind of brace that's put on you by the presidency and being to operate in that brace without basically going nuts is a challenge for any president.
RAZ: John Dickerson. He wrote about the presidency for Slate Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.