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The Problem With Personality-Based Campaign Coverage

A profile of John Hickenlooper demonstrates how journalism that focuses on candidates' charisma often makes incorrect assumptions, and favors white male politicians.
Then-Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper speaks at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Then-Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper speaks at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Frank Bruni wrote a flattering profile of one of the newest official members of the Democratic presidential field—former Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper—last week in the New York Times. The article portrayed Hickenlooper in pretty glowing personal terms, noting his sunny optimism and affability, suggesting that maybe this is the type of candidate Democrats need to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020, and the type of candidate the country needs to heal some of its divides.

There's nothing inherently wrong with congenial people running for high office. But there are significant problems with this sort of political journalism, which both relies on often incorrect assumptions and tends to favor a certain demographic of candidate at the expense of others.

For one thing, such accounts arguing that candidates' personalities dictate their success tend to be thinly sourced at best, and are likely wrong. Bruni insists that "optimism, warmth and joy matter [and] propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency," but there's no evidence this is true. Reagan certainly projected optimism, but he was also running for office against an unpopular incumbent amid a terrible foreign-policy environment and a shrinking economy. Jimmy Carter performed about as well other incumbents with such fundamentals have. Odds are that a less sunny Republican 1980 nominee—maybe George H.W. Bush or Bob Dole—would have done about as well as Reagan did against Carter.

Indeed, it's very hard to find evidence that personality traits matter much in presidential elections. Richard Nixon ran for the White House three times and won the popular vote twice (and nearly a third time), despite never being the more likable or optimistic candidate. We were told repeatedly that voters liked George W. Bush because they wanted to have a beer with him, even though he'd sworn off drinking years earlier. By many accounts across party lines, John McCain was quite likable, but that didn't do him much good in 2008 when the economy soured on his party's watch. Journalists tend to impose these sorts of likability/optimism narratives on elections after the fact to provide some sort of compelling post-hoc explanation, but the economic and foreign-policy fundamentals explain a lot more—and do so a lot more reliably.

Second, accounts like Bruni's place too much value in the sitting president's demeanor. A corollary to the incorrect Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency—a term, coined by political scientist Brendan Nyhan, that describes the line of thinking that the president can achieve anything he wants with enough will—is the idea that a president can reduce partisanship if his demeanor is bipartisan. Witness Hickenlooper's recent claim that he would ensure some cooperation from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell merely by meeting with him: "I would sit down with him and say 'Now what is the issue again?' and we would talk and I would continue to speak back to him."

Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton promised to change the partisan culture of Washington by being more open to people of different viewpoints and by seeking to be uniters. Yet the nation's politics continued to polarize on their watches, not because they weren't sufficiently bipartisan in their demeanor, but because the president's personality just doesn't matter that much when it comes to party polarization, which is sustained by massive cultural, geographic, and historically grounded trends.

Finally, coverage of the sort that Bruni is offering here is problematic because it tends to advantage candidates from a certain demographic group. Note this passage:

I think [optimism, warmth and joy are] a small part of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez phenomenon — the part that leavens the stridency and purity tests. She has a wide, dazzling smile. In a video that went viral, she dances.

Some of the Democrats who are pursuing or seriously considering presidential bids are better at dancing, metaphorically speaking, than others. It doesn't come easily to Bernie Sanders, which is why he added all that poignant family history to his big speech on Saturday, or to Elizabeth Warren, which is why she sipped a beer in an Instagram video that was part of her rollout. It's effortless for Beto O'Rourke. It's present in Cory Booker. It comes and goes with Kamala Harris, who's still calibrating her temperature.

Bruni is reasonably even-handed here, but most coverage along these lines is not, and voters, we know from considerable political science research, do not evaluate all candidates alike when it comes to traits like "stridency" and "warmth." As political scientist Mirya Holman noted in a fantastic Twitter thread last month, female candidates tend to be evaluated far more harshly than men when coverage focuses on personality traits.

Women, for example, face more of an electoral punishment than men do for failing to exhibit "communal" values like collegiality. Evidence of candidate incompetence tends to be more damaging to female candidates than to male ones. Women are far more likely than men to be seen as having a "likability" problem and for that to be seen as damaging to their candidacy. The same behavior that is treated as evidence of toughness and resolve in men is described as abrasiveness and shrillness in women.

Coverage that focuses on likability can have additionally disparate impacts based on a candidate's race. A white candidate expressing outrage might be seen as "authentic," while an African-American candidate expressing the same emotion might be depicted as angry or even dangerous.

Obviously voters are going to make some inferences about candidates' personalities, and there are some deeply ingrained assumptions about race and gender that aren't about to disappear. But covering an election in terms of dubious claims about optimism and likability tends to be a roundabout way of making the coverage less favorable to women and people of color. Unless you're trying to steer coverage that way, there are real reasons to avoid that.