News your connection to The Boston Globe

The 'likability' issue takes center stage

Some political candidates are innately more "appealing" than others, thanks to the elusive intangible called personality. Political scientists can argue all they want that people should choose candidates on the basis of "the issues," but that is rarely so.

Consider John Kerry and George Bush. Kerry is a war hero and a career public servant; he seems bright, reflective, and nuanced on the issues. But during his campaign against Bush he has come across as distant, indecisive, hardly likable. Bush, on the other hand, is affable and charming, a man with relatively simple ideas to which he seems permanently attached. In spite of all the difficulties in Iraq, he comes across as confident, optimistic, steady, and positive.

Because it is hard for ordinary citizens to determine how Bush and Kerry differ on the issues (and indeed on some they don't), the election may well be decided on personality -- how much voters actually like them. Indeed, Bush seems now to be running on the basis of his personality, whereas Kerry seems to be running away from his.

But what exactly is personality? For starters, it is important to distinguish between what people do and why they do it. What they do is usually a matter of public record, but why they do it, their motivation, is a matter of speculation. This distinction means personality must be defined from two perspectives. Personality from the candidate's perspective speaks to his identity -- his values, goals, aspirations, insecurities, and fears. Personality from the voters' perspective concerns his reputation -- how he is perceived by others.

What we think about other people can be broken down into what psychologists call the "Five-Factor Model." The first factor is a dimension that ranges from self-doubt to self-confidence; former President Bill Clinton exemplifies the high end of this, perhaps to excess. The second factor varies between wimpiness and assertiveness, and assertiveness is something even Donald Rumsfeld's critics admire in him. The third factor goes from aloofness to interpersonal warmth; Ronald Reagan projected warmth from every pore. The fourth concerns impulsivity and flexibility versus conscientiousness and stubbornness; the latter was the essence of Jimmy Carter's performance. The final factor involves being practical, plain-spoken, and intellectually content at one end, and imaginative, curious, and visionary at the other. Thomas Jefferson was a major exemplar of the visionary end of the scale.

With this model in mind, it is easy to see what voters will and won't like in our presidential candidates. Bush personifies self-confidence and self-assurance, which is essential for a successful candidate and potential leader. Bush is also described as assertive and decisive, which are appealing elements of a leader's style. Finally, he is considered a nice guy who is both warm and personable. On the other hand, Bush can be stubborn and unyielding; the attractiveness of this varies -- staying the course is important unless it begins to look like a foolish consistency. Factor five is where Bush's father got in trouble ("The vision thing"), and the current president is known to be incurious to the point of being anti-intellectual.

John Kerry's reputation also has its pluses and minuses. His self-confidence and personal bravery are a matter of public record, as are his assertiveness and willingness to take charge. On the down side, Kerry is perceived as "remote" and "a loner," which means that people don't find him to be very cuddly. In addition, he has, over the years, shown a great deal of flexibility in his views and spontaneity in action, but how this plays with the voting public depends on the circumstances. Finally, if Bush loses appeal for his lack of curiosity and sophistication, Kerry is often criticized for being too nuanced in his views, too sophisticated in his lifestyle (he speaks French), and too flexible (a flip-flopper in GOP parlance).

Modern research is able to accurately classify the personalities of presidential contenders. Voters, for their part, will find some aspects of a candidate's personality attractive and others less so. In the end, it may well be these judgments about personality, not about the issues, that will determine how they vote.

Robert Hogan, president of Hogan Assessment Systems, is an international authority on personality assessment, leadership, and organizational effectiveness. 

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months