It’s a common question on many exit polls: “Which was more important in your vote today: your candidate’s position on the issues, or your candidate’s leadership or personal qualities?” (Here’s the New York Times’s version, after the New Hampshire primaries).

“Personal qualities” here can mean a number of things. On the one hand, it is a code-word for personal attributes such as gender, race, or age. It can also be a euphemism for how convincingly candidates show the right kind of religious devotion, or how well candidates have distanced themselves from scandal. But the question also speaks to seemingly superficial questions of “likeability,” charisma and charm—all of which can make a presidential election sometimes seem a bit more like a beauty pageant or a reality TV show than a serious exercise of democracy.

Yet “personal qualities” in all these senses do matter, and have always mattered in presidential politics, in part because the president, as head of state, symbolically represents the US as a whole.


There is no clearer example of this than Barack Obama’s presidency. Far in excess of his proposed political agenda, Obama’s “personal qualities”—his race, his youth, his attractive and apparently happy family, as well as his likeability and calm demeanour—conveyed a sense in 2008 that the American nation was somehow dramatically changed. Overnight, the US became, like its calm, young, black president, somehow cooler. Of course, this very sense of change and Obama’s overwhelming symbolic importance helps explain why he is also divisive, far in excess of what his accomplishments as president would suggest.

This year, the question of “personal qualities” in presidential politics seems especially important, but also especially confusing. In the New Hampshire exit poll mentioned above, 72% of Democratic respondents said they cared more about the issues than about personal qualities. This could simply mean that these respondents were not influenced by Clinton’s status as the only woman in the race. Or perhaps it confirms a view that some hold that Bernie Sanders’ campaign is uniquely driven by “ideas and policies.” If this is the case, then it is in stark contrast to the Republican side, where, as Erik Åsard posted, Donald Trump’s campaign doesn’t seem to be about much else besides personality—and what a personality: belligerent, proudly bigoted, and shameless about pandering to his audience’s worst impulses.

But then again, nobody in this race is an obvious winner of the “Who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with?” test. Voters don’t trust Hillary Clinton, John Kasich is a “jerk” with a bad temper, and Ted Cruz is a “nasty little weasel.” Marco Rubio is “robotic,” Chris Christie is a “bully,” and Bernie Sanders is a “grump” and a “grouch.”

What to make of this lack of “likeable” candidates?

For help in answering this question, we can turn to Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod, who recently laid out a grand theory of how personality matters in a presidential race. He wrote:

Here’s the gist. Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent. Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.

 A young, energetic John F. Kennedy succeeded the grandfatherly, somnolent Dwight D. Eisenhower, promising “a new generation of leadership.” In a slight variation, a puritanical Jimmy Carter, offering “a government as good as its people,” defeated the unelected incumbent Gerald R. Ford, who bore the burden of the morally bankrupt Nixon era. Even George H.W. Bush, running to succeed the popular and larger-than-life Ronald Reagan, subtly made a virtue of his own lack of charisma and edge.

Axelrod claims that he urged Obama to run for the presidency in 2008 in part because Obama’s calm and deliberative personality would be the perfect antidote to the impulsive and aggressive George W. Bush, who famously made decisions based on how they felt in his “gut”. Following this line of logic to 2016, Axelrod concludes, “So who among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr. Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr. Trump?”

Actually, I think Axelrod’s theory makes sense not only of some of Trump’s peculiar appeal, but of that of several other trash-talking candidates in the race. Before Trump, Christie (who left the race after New Hampshire) endeared himself to voters with a video that showed him yelling at a man to “sit down and shut up!” And though Kasich appears to be trying to soften his nasty image, he is still remembered as the Ohio governor who called state workers “idiots,” “knuckleheads,” and “snouts in the trough.” Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, even those who tend to sympathize with Sanders’s agenda worry that he is “rude, short-tempered and, occasionally, downright hostile.”


One of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s famous scowls REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Obama has had plenty of things to be angry about in his eight years as president, including a Republican leadership focused on destroying his major initiatives, and ultimately his legacy. And yet he has been so good at controlling the outward expression of his frustration that various official and unofficial instances of his “anger” could fit neatly into a Wall Street Journal column. When Congressman Joe Wilson heckled President Obama during a 2009 speech before Congress, shouting “you lie!,” Obama simply replied, “That’s not true,” and moved on, while the rest of the house reacted in shock at this display of rudeness.

None of the grouchy candidates of 2016—Trump, Sanders, or Kasich–have managed that kind of self-control. But perhaps that’s just the point. Perhaps their success, so far, can be attributed to a desire on the part of the voters to have a president who will yell back. For this campaign cycle at least, being a grouch may not be a campaign liability. It may be just the thing that voters want.

If so, I believe Sanders ultimately has an edge in the likability contest—at least on the Democratic side. There are already signs, especially among younger voters, that his grouchiness is perceived as more grandfatherly than nasty.  Meanwhile, Clinton is at a serious disadvantage. It’s one thing for old white guys like Trump, Sanders, and Kasich to come across as insulting or ill-tempered, but quite another for a woman to try this. She has to walk a very fine line to show voters that she can be appropriately concerned, forceful, and commanding without being seen as hostile, crazy, or mean. So far, as voters’ concerns about her trustworthiness indicate, she may not have quite found that line yet.


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