Rick Perry and the Likability Factor
After slipping in the national polls from the high 30s, briefly leading his Republican rivals, to his current position around 10%, Rick Perry is attempting a comeback with his flat tax proposal. But he will never regain the lead unless he changes his style at the debates. In short, he must become more likable.
In the final analysis, when all is said and done, the determinative factor that decides presidential elections is who is the most likable candidate. This might be a depressing fact to comprehend -- are American presidential elections, the process by which we choose the most powerful man in the world, nothing more than high school popularity contests? Well, if you scan over the last several presidential elections, you will see that this is indeed the case.
The sunny former movie star Ronald Reagan was vastly more appealing than the morose Jimmy Carter and the stilted Walter Mondale. George H.W. Bush was more likable than the emotionless Michael Dukakis, who, you will remember, could not muster real anger in response to the hypothetical of executing his wife's murderer. But by 1992, the people liked the rakish Bill Clinton more than Bush, who by that time seemed to be an out-of-touch patrician.
In 1996, even after many petty scandals, Bill Clinton was still more likable than Bob Dole (who reminded young voters of the mean old man down the street who wouldn't let the kids play in front of his yard). George W. Bush and Al Gore essentially tied in 2000 -- it is hard to remember the pre-bloated, pre-prophet-of-doom Al Gore, but he was a relatively young, handsome politician then. In 2004 people liked Bush more than the Lurch-like Kerry, who was strangely fixated on his Vietnam service (generally, people like veterans who are modest about their war experience).
If you don't like the high school popularity contest analogy, then perhaps you might like the TV show analogy better. The average American watches over four hours of television per day. So when Americans pick a presidential candidate, they are subliminally thinking about whom they would prefer to see on TV every day for the next four years. In 2008 they rejected the idea of watching John McCain in Grumpy Old Men and decided instead to watch Obama in The Fresh Prince of D.C.
The point is that the most likable candidate usually wins the election, and in the last four debates -- and especially the last one in Nevada -- Rick Perry has not been an attractive figure. He looks mean-spirited and angry. Instead of talking about his own accomplishments and offering a positive vision, he constantly attacks his rivals, often in a ham-handed, cheap fashion.
Frank Luntz, the well-known pollster, says his focus group reacted very negatively to Perry's performance in Nevada. "It was horrific," exclaims Luntz; people want to see a candidate with a "positive attitude," not a back-alley brawler. He says this accounts for why Gingrich has enjoyed a bump in the polls. During these debates, Gingrich appears mature and intelligent, refusing to engage in childish bickering. People like a candidate that takes the high road.
So Perry must work on his appeal. The BYU political scientist David B. Magleby defines candidate appeal as "the way voters feel about a candidate's background, personality, leadership ability, physical appearance, and other personal qualities." Come Election Day, Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate; Republicans will vote for the Republican candidate. But independent voters care less about the issues and ideology and instead vote on candidate appeal. Magleby says the avuncular Dwight Eisenhower, as a former general, a keen decision-maker, and a man inclined to rise above the fray, had enormous candidate appeal. Howard Dean, on the other hand, destroyed his candidate appeal with one overly enthusiastic scream, causing people to question his self-control.
Candidate appeal also involves the way people feel about the candidate's family and religion. Perry has an attractive family and a beautiful, intelligent wife, but today political spouses must be very savvy about how they may be portrayed by the media. A few weeks ago, Anita Perry complained that the reason why "we have been brutalized and beaten up by the press ... is because of his [Perry's] faith." It might be true that professional journalists are secular in their outlook, and may even be biased against evangelicals like the Baptist Perry, but it never pays for a Republican to play the victim in a presidential campaign.
Rick Perry needs to relax and allow the softer, more appealing side of his personality to show. As Perry grows more confident and gets accustomed to the overwhelming demands of the campaign, he might overcome the fight-or-flight instinct that seems to take control of him at these debates. A self-assured, successful man, like Reagan, he can make jokes about himself and not feel the need to meet every implied insult with a kidney punch.
Perry has many endearing qualities he can use to his advantage. His ruggedly handsome face, which can unexpectedly soften with a boyish grin, is definitely an asset. On the stump he is very engaging and energetic. When he gets out and meets the people, he can be relaxed and charming. And he is improving in the one-on-one interviews, like the one he recently did with Bill O'Reilly, where he came off as thoughtful, almost articulate, and yes, more likable.
Perry has a very narrow opportunity to launch a comeback. If he can build on his two recent policy proposals, his domestic energy expansion plan and his flat tax plan, with a dramatic change in his debate style, he has a slim chance to regain the lead. But if the angry, combative Rick Perry shows up at the next debate, he is doomed.