The Election 2016 postmortem has largely characterized the race as a debate over who was less unlikeable. This decision was just as much about not electing Hillary Clinton as it was about electing Donald Trump. For the next presidential election and the many elections to follow, political strategists will need to think longer and harder about picking candidates who are popular and implementing strategies that can maintain that popularity. Michael Moore suggests Democrats simply start picking celebrities. I won’t say he’s wrong, but I think the topic of what makes a person, particularly one who holds opinions about important and challenging ideas, popular deserves a more nuanced look than that. To that end, the following is a graph of the all-time high and low favorability +/- (favorable – unfavorable) of various people inside and outside of politics, as tracked by Gallup. Detailed information, including dates, is available in the appendix.
Bill Cosby is essentially my ceiling and floor for likeability. It is difficult to get much better than a universally beloved comedian and much worse than an accused serial rapist (although Newt Gingrich managed the latter).
At first glance, one obvious finding largely discredits Michael Moore’s strategy: the transition from non-campaigning individual to campaigning individual diminishes a large portion of the goodwill one has created with the public. Note that only the politicians and Bill Cosby have negative ratings, and most of these lows occurred around elections. The underlying reason for this swing is obvious: politics and issues in the United States tend to arrange themselves around the median voter, which means by holding and vocalizing political opinions, a person inevitably antagonizes close to half of the population. That politics is built on angering large swaths of people leads nicely to the first quality of a good candidate and campaign.
1) Present yourself as anti-establishment
This point is very obvious, but it bears mentioning: the perception of a candidate as anti-establishment is becoming increasingly important. That said, exactly what anti-establishment means is nothing short of a complete and total mystery, and I would argue that this is more a branding issue than a candidate issue. Obviously extreme instances of “being part of the problem” (e.g., being in Washington for 30+ years) are worth addressing, but choosing a candidate simply because he or she is anti-establishment is a very dangerous game. Once the candidate is chosen, however, presenting him or her as outside of the hostility and ineffectiveness of D.C. is very important.
2) Campaign with a very high signal-to-noise ratio
Michelle Obama in particular and First Ladies in general have gone to great lengths to be apolitical, most likely to act as a counter-weight to their spouses’ inevitably partisan rhetoric. Therefore, they are by nature of their position less likely to be disliked. But to say that Michelle Obama is not vocal or that she is popular strictly because she is apolitical is not correct. As evidence, I point to her speech at the Democratic National Convention, after which her favorability jumped 6 points, as well as her October annihilation of Trump in New Hampshire, which pundits and the public alike called a massive success (though in hindsight, it appears more with regard to her likeability and less with regard to Trump’s unelectability).
Michelle has a very high signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to her messaging. She is mostly a nonconfrontational First Lady, but she has occasional bouts of sharp criticisms, and these bouts, unlike most political railings, actually help her favorability. Put simply, the American people like to see that their leaders really care about issues but not necessarily all or even most of the time. This phenomenon also explains why so many progressives think that Elizabeth Warren would be a great presidential candidate but her favorability ratings show her to be not all that popular. Warren is talking about all the right issues, but she’s talking about them far too much.
3) Message as a positive sum game
This is another rather obvious point, but it remains woefully underutilized in practice. President Obama’s and many other past presidents’ highest favorability ratings came during their inaugurations, when they best embodied the spirit of unity and a rising tide lifting all boats. Whether it’s governance, a campaign, or any other public activity, a positive sum game will always be better received than a zero sum game. That’s probably why certain religious figureheads such as Pope Francis and Billy Graham have been immune to negative ratings, even when presenting decidedly antiquated views. Those two in particular have taken it upon themselves to consistently convey the message that whether you’re a sinner or saint, there’s room for you in heaven.
The idea that politicians should act like we’re all on the same side is something that many activists do not like to hear because, let’s face it, we’re not. However, the unfortunate fact is that there’s often a difference between what’s right and what’s effective. Sometimes, a carrot is needed, even when a stick is justified, particularly with regard to politics. The anger and fear, especially for those whose lives hang in the balance, are unequivocally justified. But what is less clear is whether such anger and fear, particularly when they are unrelenting and coming from politicians, will translate into political and social progress in the years to come. On top of this, a paradox may be at play: The constant attacks on Donald Trump may be doing more to normalize his behavior than actual attempts by the right to normalize his behavior. It’s too much and perhaps counterproductive to ask that the general population assuage their legitimate fears, but it may be wise for the politicians championing their issues to do exactly that.
4) Do not reveal your candidacy too early
This does not necessarily reveal itself from the favorability data alone, but it’s an extremely important point that has received little to no attention by mainstream media. Hillary Clinton became the presumed Democratic nominee the second she was defeated by Obama in 2008. This meant that over 8 years, Republicans were able to create controversies in real time. They didn’t have to back-date Hillary “cronyism” (which Democrats often did with Trump), which made Republicans’ attacks on her seem much less like bullying and much more like highlighting inherent, perpetual, and incurable ills of Hillary Clinton. Hillary’s extremely long presumed candidacy meant her campaign had to fight all the bad of a second-term race (i.e., 4+ years of intense scrutiny) while seeing little of the good (i.e., she could not claim many successes of the Obama administration, particularly in his second term, as her own).
If politics 2016 taught us anything, it’s that assuming that the most qualified and competent candidate will win is clearly wrong. Hillary’s defeat was the combination of a terrible campaign strategy, overblown personality flaws, and just bad luck/circumstances (I will never say that this race had nothing or even little to do with gender or race). However, Hillary herself was not that far off from being a really good candidate (just look at her enormous popularity during her time as Secretary of State), which just goes to show how important it is to get everything right. In particular, I think she, and most past politicians, failed catastrophically on the point of a high signal-to-noise ratio. Strategically and temperamentally, candidates need to spend a vast majority of their time bringing people together, with the occasional and profound blip of telling it like it is.
Needless to say, I think Michelle Obama is the best possible candidate out there. Unfortunately, President Obama has stated time and again that that’s never going to happen. Therefore, I’ll end this post with a list of safe picks and long shots my best friend Erica thinks might fit the ticket for 2020: Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, Maxine Waters and Jill Biden.
|Bill Cosby||Jan 1997||90||4||6||+86|
|Hillary Clinton||May 2012||66||29||5||+37|
|Newt Gingrich||Oct 1998||42||49||9||-7|
|Rev. Billy Graham||Jun 2005||66||20||14||+46|
|Joe Biden||Nov 2008||59||29||12||+30|
|Ted Kennedy||July 2004||50||39||11||+11|
|Barack Obama||Jan 2009||78||18||5||+60|
|Michelle Obama||Mar 2009||72||17||11||+55|
|Pope Francis||Feb 2014||76||9||16||+67|
|Donald Trump||June 2005||50||38||12||+12|
|George W. Bush||Nov 2001||87||11||2||+76|
|Laura Bush||Feb 2005||80||12||8||+68|
|Nancy Pelosi||Jan 2007||44||22||34||+22|
|Bernie Sanders||Aug 2016||56||36||8||+20|
|Oprah Winfrey||Mar 1992||78||14||8||+64|