It is said that in modern electoral contests, the more “likable” candidate usually wins. Nationally we think of Kennedy over Nixon; Bush over Kerry; Obama over McCain.
Closer to home, the elections of Gov. Deval Patrick over Charlie Baker and U.S. Sen. Scott Brown over Martha Coakley support the same theory.
In 2012, conventional wisdom holds that Mitt Romney has work to do if he is going to win the likability contest. (Although it is clear from his performance in Wednesday’s debate that Romney is a much more likable fellow than the media wants you to know.)
And it has become the storyline of our senatorial campaign that the hometown guy — with his barn coat and pickup truck — is more likable than the professor from Cambridge with her radical friends in the Occupy movement.
It is true that Americans want to like their leaders. But likability, as with beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is personal and subjective, and it can be defined numerous ways.
For instance, as their barometer of likability, many pundits rely on the “beer test” — as in, with which candidate would you rather share a beer? By this measure, you’d expect Brown to win in a landslide over Warren, and Obama to soundly trounce Romney — after all, Mormons don’t even drink beer.
But others, like New York Times [NYT] columnist Maureen Dowd, equate likability with compassion. Thus, Dowd predicts an Obama victory because in polls the president outscores Romney on characteristics such as empathy and trust.
But political likability doesn’t necessarily mean the candidate with whom you’d prefer to share a beer, or even the candidate you think would make a better friend.
Pollster John Della Volpe notes that voters want to support candidates who are similar to them, only slightly better. Della Volpe believes that voters prefer candidates who can relate to their lives and concerns, but who are somewhat higher in stature — more educated, more experienced — than they are.
From this perspective, perhaps it makes more sense to ask which candidate would make a better boss?
Generally speaking, we want to work for someone who is more experienced and knowledgeable than we are. Someone whose achievements and leadership style we respect. We want a boss who is open to new ideas, but who is a decisive and confident decision-maker. And we want a boss who is willing to share credit for success and accept responsibility for failure (one who embraces the notion of “the buck stops here”).
These are the qualities of a “likable” boss. And, while humor, compassion, and beer-drinking ability might sweeten the pot, these characteristics are not deal-breakers when it comes to our opinions of those who lead us.
By this yardstick, Romney surely beats Obama, who has proven himself to be petulant, ideologically inflexible, and all too willing to blame others (his predecessor, Congress, you name it).
And what of the senatorial candidates? Brown comes across as more flexible and bipartisan than Warren, who is often strident and defensive. But Warren seems like an intelligent and decisive decision-maker. And one can also envision her in the role of supportive boss.
Truth is, no matter how you measure it, “likability” in politics is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The winners of electoral contests are, by definition, more likable — at least they were liked by more people on the only day that counts.
And so, on Nov. 7, with the benefit of hindsight, the media will dub the winners of the presidency and of the Massachusetts Senate race “more likable.” And the purveyors of conventional wisdom will rewrite the story of campaign 2012 to fit that preconceived narrative.