GOP Leadership Contest: The Likeability Factor
Dec 3, 2011

GOP Leadership Contest: The Likeability Factor


Pundits seem to love to profess multitudes of differing explanations for the see-sawing GOP leadership contest that has seen, respectively, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and now Newt Gingrich surge to the front of the pack in challenging Mitt Romney. These alternative explanations range from the simple to the complex, the realistic to the ridiculous. 

At the risk of simply indulging in this same game of choosing my favorite factor that is determining the outcome of this contest, I think the dominant factor is quite simply the likeability and personality of the candidates as expressed chiefly through the numerous debates as well as through the morning talk shows and other media appearances. Most of the factors the pundits identify seem to me to only be the type of thing that is persuasive to those who are quite knowledgeable about the minutiae of the political scene (ie the pundits themselves) while the simple question of whether the candidate presents themselves in a broadly likeable way dominates any more policy-centric focus. 

Take, for instance, the much heralded comments by Perry, timed near an inflection point in his demise, where he defended in-state tuition to illegal immigrants suggesting that one would be "heartless" not to support this (a wording he later apologized for). Conventional wisdom was that such a position with anathema to Republicans and hence precipitated his downfall. In some sense, we have a fairly clear counterexample since Newt Gingrich gave an even more extreme version also arguing for compassion towards illegal families who have been in the US a long time which struck a lot of amnesty-esque overtones. Yet Gingrich is still pushing strong in the polls as the sole remaining first tier candidate to take on Romney (as an aside, the reason he so prominently emphasized this is because of considering the general election and trying to appeal to moderate and Hispanic voters). However, I don't think we even need the counterexample to realize that such a narrow policy focused issue is quite unlikely to be a major factor in such a precipitous demise or even that this issue is necessarily something the casual conservative leaning person has even deeply thought about or cares all that much about. 

Let us follow the evolution of the race for the respective candidates from this perspective of focusing on likeability as illustrated principally in the debates. Here is the Dec 3rd aggregate from Real Clear Politics which shows the rise (and falls) of Bachmann, Perry, Cain and finally the rise of Gingrich against relatively flat projections for the frontrunner Romney and the third tier candidates, Santorum, Hunstman and Paul. 



Michele Bachmann:
Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry both came into the race with momentum. Bachmann has been a leader in some sense of the Tea Party caucus in Congress. Since one of the dominant divides in the Republican party has been between the establishment Republicans (of which Mitt Romney is a member) and the upstart Tea Party, Michele Bachmann entered with some momentum behind her that she may have been the Tea Party's de facto standard bearer in the nomination process. However, her debate performances were simply muted. They didn't contain much of the more extreme positions one might conventionally associate with her that would let her stand out form the field and simply came across as one of the pact. As in, her basic personality in the debates wasn't enough to established her as the clear Tea Party frontrunner and so she fell off in the polls - and so left the first Romney challenger. 

Rick Perry:
Rick Perry arrives next on the scene late but with enormous momentum, overnight jumping in the polls much higher than Bachmann ever had to front runner status given the excitement that he was the only one in the field with the establishment clout (as two term Governor of Texas, ala Bush) to challenge Romney. There are essentially three commonly established explanations for his fall. Firstly, the immigration comments mentioned above. Secondly, a series of gaffes made in the debates such as the infamous "oops" moment when he couldn't remember his talking point of the third department he was going to cut. I am very hesitant to think such minor gaffes have much relevancy. With so many debates, most people don't see any individual gaffe and I think people are usually pretty forgiving of a gaffe if they like a guy and only make a big deal of it when it is used to attack an enemy. 

The third explanation (which, to be fair, has been widely trumpeted) is simply that he has had terrible debate performances. This is certainly true. He simply has not come across as a likeable guy. Perhaps the best descriptor of his debate performances is 'feckless'. Maybe this isn't the sole factor, but it is to my mind a very large chunk of the explanation for his downfall and is sufficient to have caused it almost irrespective of anything else. 

Herman Cain:
Cain's rise is, I think, the best example of my thesis. He is clearly a likeable guy and came off very well in the debates. He was smiling, friendly, and cracking jokes that got more laughter than any other candidate. He spoke simply, concisely, and without the usual parlance and mannerisms of the politician. This isn't the only prescription to come off as likeable but it is a sufficient one. The timing was right and he picked up Perry's votes despite no one really thinking he ever stood much of a shot. 

A lot of his approach and attitude, however, only works in a zero scrutiny environment when others are not digging and attacking him. Thus, when the spotlight turned to him it wasn't so much that he failed to answer certain policy questions or the like, it is that he started coming off as defensive, guarded and shifty. As in, he stopped being likeable.

From a policy standpoint, Cain is quite interesting. One the one hand, he heavily promoted his 9 9 9 plan which is, if nothing else, an actual policy that, through concision and repetition, is easily understandable. So Cain might be considered very policy oriented in that supporting him is a little bit equivalent to supporting 9 9 9. On the other hand, outside of this he has been probably the least policy oriented of the candidates and rarely offers much of a substantive policy decision, often hedging his bets by saying things like that he would consult his Generals or his economic advisers without offering an actual policy. That a candidate like him rose so quickly without much substantive policy outside of 9 9 9 indicates one again how a policy focus can be largely irrelevant. 

As it turned out, he then got hit by a string of sex allegations which our society can't help but think is the biggest deal in the world. The latest involving and alleged long term affair right up to the present with phone records and money transfers would appeal to have locked in his demise as he has now "suspended" his campaign. I am of the opinion his downfall was close to inevitable anyways (and am a bit annoyed the sex allegations mean I won't be able to let time prove it for me). 

Newt Gingrich:
The current (and perhaps the last) runner up to Romney is Newt Gingrich. His rise is clearly very dependent on the timing, but again fundamentally stems from the fact that he came off as very likeable in the debates. This was a guy whose entire campaign staff had quit a couple months earlier and was in the low single digits poll wise. But he stepped into the debates and really shown as clearly the best or second best debater after Romney on the stage. It isn't just that he appears to be intelligent, intellectual even, or other such traits, it is predominantly that he appears to be genuinely likeable. Gingrich is sometimes characterized as acerbic, in a pejorative sense, but I think this attitude comes off more as that beloved no bullshit attitude that says it how it is which is often admired.

Partly because the Republican party as a whole has shifted considerably to the right since Gingrich was Speaker during the 90's (he was far right at the time), and partly because of his personal policy eccentricities, from a policy perspective Gingrich stands out considerably and flies against standard GOP orthodoxy of the day. However, it doesn't seem to matter if the polls are to be believed, which really underscores my view that personality, not policy, is the defining characteristic here.

Cain and Gingrich can both credit their rises to this likeability factor even though the reason why the two candidates are likeable are quite different. The important difference is that while Cain's likeability seems to vanish in conflict, Gingrich's is the type that remains and perhaps becomes even more prominent in the face of conflict. It is for this reason that I don't expect him to experience the kind of precipitous fall that the other experienced.

Ultimately, I would wish that it was indeed policy, not personalities, that dominated election contests. However, it would appear that the driver of polls is precisely the opposite. 


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