Don’t Worry About the Charisma Thing

Charisma is one of those things that many political observers are convinced they can spot in a candidate, but turns out to be really hard to pin down.
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Senator Marco Rubio speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

Senator Marco Rubio speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

The Republicans are in the middle of an exciting contest for the 2016 presidential nomination between a number of high-quality candidates. How will the party ultimately evaluate all of these people? Inevitably, much coverage so far has focused on particular candidate qualities, notably charisma. Jeb Bush has been accused of “using his family name as destiny to compensate for a lack of charisma or passion.” Scott Walker “needs to work on the whole charisma thing.” Marco Rubio, however, “has charisma, at least the sort that works in American politics,” as does Chris Christie.

This sort of coverage proceeds from the very dubious assumption that charisma is an identifiable and measurable quality candidates may have. Like “leadership” (see Julia Azari’s piece on that) or “authenticity” (see what Richard Skinner and I had to say on that), charisma is one of those things that many political observers are convinced they can spot in a candidate and know when they see it, but turns out to be really hard to pin down.

One problem with charisma is that it’s incredibly subjective. A candidate who appears charismatic to one person may appear like a phony gasbag to another.

President Obama has no magical, Jedi-like ability to convert enemies or control the weak-minded. We see him as charismatic (if we do) because he won.

Another problem is that charisma, like leadership and authenticity, works far better as a post hoc rationalization than as a current description of a candidate. That is, we tend to look back on candidates who won and describe them as charismatic, while we dismiss the losers as lacking charisma—not because they possessed or lack that trait, but because winning bestows all sorts of positive connotations on a candidate in hindsight.

In 1988, both Michael Dukakis and George Bush struggled to appear charismatic during the campaign. Bush, in particular, fought to overcome “the wimp factor.” Yet today, Bush is widely recalled as winning because Dukakis lacked charisma. This is basically all besides the point: Bush won for the simple reason that the economy was growing strongly in 1987 and '88 and Republicans got the credit for that. That election likely would have come out almost identically even if Dukakis looked like Tom Selleck and Bush looked like Screech. Yet because Bush got the win, he is remembered more favorably than his opponent.

We might also think back to the differences between Bill Clinton (widely regarded as charismatic) and Al Gore (widely regarded as nerdy and off-putting). These were two very similar politicians in many ways, both very bright, both representing a newer model of white southern Democratic politician in the late 1980s and early '90s, with moderate outlooks but strong commitments to key Democratic priorities like civil rights and environmentalism. But Clinton won the White House on his first attempt, while Gore lost twice. Do the differences between these two men just come down to charisma?

It’s important to remember that, but for 537 Floridians, Gore would have won the presidency in 2000 (with a larger share of the popular vote than Clinton ever won), and would likely have a much better reputation today than he does. What’s more, we’d probably remember George W. Bush as a babbling phony who affected a cowboy accent in a failed attempt to win votes, rather than as the charismatic leader who upset Gore.

Even today, do we have any real sense of whether Obama is a charismatic leader or not? He’s certainly described that way by many of his supporters, and even by some of his detractors who use that as an excuse for failing to defeat him twice. But judging by his electoral performances, Obama did just about as well as any Democratic candidate would have done under similar political circumstances. And even if he has charisma, that only translated to legislative success when Democrats controlled Congress with large numbers. He has no magical, Jedi-like ability to convert enemies or control the weak-minded. We see him as charismatic (if we do) because he won.

The Republican party insiders who are currently struggling to figure out who would best serve their party as a presidential nominee are considering a great many things: where the candidates stand on key issues, which interest groups trust them and which don’t, how faithful they’ll be to party positions once in office, how good they are at raising money, and how likely they are to win a general election. Some calculation of charisma may be included in there, but it’s almost invariably a mirage. Whoever wins in 2016 will look charismatic in 2017, and whoever loses won’t. And charisma will have had little to do with that.

Seth Masket writes a weekly column for Pacific Standard about politics and policy.

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