During the heat of an election campaign we hear some people deride an opposing candidate as being a “nice guy” as if that’s a liability. (For the purpose of this post, the term “nice guy” in the vernacular applies to both genders.) The context being the person has different values, positions and a faulty record, but his being a “nice guy” might carry him through the day.It could if history has anything to do with it.
One of the many axioms in politics is not to downplay a candidate’s likability. This is not to suggest that likability is sufficient to win an election. Stances on specific issues, party affiliation, the current political environment, the opponent, oratory skills, the amount of money raised and spent, endorsements, record, biography, and voter turnout are among those factors in shaping an election. #hocopoliticsBut likability is a major strength especially if voters are not engaged on the issues or are not informed regarding the candidates. It could be decisive with other factors being equal, and all politicians would be wise to make that an asset for themselves.
Throughout history, likability has frequently been a rationale for voters. It became more prevalent starting with the Kennedy-Nixon contest in 1960 when television, for the first time, was a major element in the election campaign. Most pundits opined that the televised debate between those two candidates was the turning point. Nixon looked nervous, sweaty and pale on black and white television though he was the more experienced politician, while the young John F. Kennedy seemed alert, fresh and vibrant. Of course, Nixon had been suffering from a cold and eschewed using make-up, but he won the debate on the merits. Nonetheless, Nixon lost the night because of the optics.Voters around the country gave Kennedy a closer look and liked what they saw. They fell in love with his beautiful, glamorous wife and young daughter, and Kennedy himself possessed strong oratory skills, charisma and was inspirational. In short, enough of the voters liked him, his personality and his family to hand him a slim margin of victory at the polls. Nixon, seen as glum, was doomed to falter to the more pleasant Kennedy.
There are exceptions, of course, but other presidential contests demonstrated how likability may have been a determinant. There was the affable, sunny Ronald Reagan winning over the turgid Jimmy Carter. Folksy, down-home Bill Clinton defeating the privileged George H.W. Bush (with a little help from Ross Perot). Jocular George W. Bush losing the votes but winning the Electoral College over the stiff and sighing Al Gore (assisted by Ralph Nader and the Supreme Court). And Bush again edging another stiff one, John Kerry.Then you have the historic candidacy of Barack Obama—a far more likable chap than the cranky John McCain and mega-rich snob Mitt Romney—winning two terms. He even gave a nod to the likability factor as he famously told Hillary Clinton during a primary debate, “You’re likeable enough Hillary.” But that retort backfired on the political neophyte as it was seen as patronizing.
Those likable candidates mentioned above would have won those elections regardless of likability because there were overriding issues that interested and engaged the electorate. But there is no doubt that favorable trait played a role in their success.Any political advisor or consultant worth his or her salt would tell you that it is critical to be likable. This is especially applicable in local contests when issues typically don’t rise to the level of national security and other broad concerns. It could be a difference maker.
The way to deal with that during a campaign is to either drive up the likable opponent’s negatives or improve their own favorability. Those already holding elected office could look back and note that their likability may have helped put them in those jobs.The value of likability should never be underestimated even if elections are rarely won or lost based on that alone. However, on most occasions it seems that nice guys do finish first.