The BLOG: Campaign 2016

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Leadership styles and political campaigns (Part I)

It’s leadership style, stupid!

Take off your partisan hats and your ideological glasses for a moment, and think about these presidential contests:

1960          Kennedy beats Nixon
1980          Reagan beats Carter
1996          Clinton beats Dole
2004         Bush beats Kerry
2008         Obama beats McCain

In each of these elections, the prevailing candidate was more telegenic, was perceived as more personable or more optimistic, and was generally better able to connect with average Americans than his opponent. In short, the more likable candidate won.

The picture is, of course, more complicated, and I am certainly not suggesting that ideas and issues are irrelevant. But the presentation of ideas is, in my view, as important to electoral success as the ideas themselves.

The way I see it, there are four kinds of politicians: Visionaries, Beer Candidates, Technocrats, and Careerists. Although many candidates are a combination of types, most have a dominant persona that, I believe, determines close elections.

Graphic by the NewBostonPost

Graphic by the NewBostonPost

The Visionaries run not to make America incrementally better but to affect transformational change. Their campaigns do not dwell on details; they focus on two or three bold themes (American leadership in the world or income inequality, to name two). Visionaries are storytellers who spin optimistic and forward-looking yarns about America and her promise. Visionaries win because people believe in them. Examples: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama

Graphic by the NewBostonPost

Graphic by the NewBostonPost

The Beer Candidates are those with whom ordinary Americans can envision sharing a meal or grabbing a beer. They are charming and affable, and they genuinely enjoy kissing babies and talking to people. In short, they excel at retail politics.  When Beer Candidates win, it’s because people like them personally or because these candidates are able to convince average Americans that understand them, that they “feel their pain.” Examples: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton

Graphic by the NewBostonPost

Graphic by the NewBostonPost

The Technocrats are wonks who enjoy the nuts and bolts of policy-making and who seek to reform the workings of government. These leaders are hands-on problem solvers. Their campaigns are based on “competence” and strong managerial skills, not ideological propositions. Examples: Jimmy Carter, Mike Dukakis, Mitt Romney

Graphic by the NewBostonPost

Graphic by the NewBostonPost

The Careerists are party leaders, elder statesmen, or government hacks who lack ideological vision and often view politics as a career ladder to be climbed one rung at a time. Examples:  Bob Dole, John Kerry

Today, more often than not, a candidate’s success depends not on the minutiae of tax policy, foreign aid or education, but on how a candidate defines himself vis-à-vis his opponent.

Think of it as the political equivalent of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” In the popular children’s game, certain rules establish the winner of each round: Rock crushes Scissors, Scissors cut Paper, and Paper covers Rock. In my political version of the game, the following rules of thumb apply:

1.     Visionaries beat almost everyone

Clearly, a Visionary will beat a Technocrat or a Careerist — neither of whom offer the nation a compelling ideological reason to support him and both of whom lack the winsome personality of a Beer Candidate.  Thus,

— Reagan (a Visionary) beat Carter (a Technocrat) and Mondale (a Careerist);
— Obama (a Visionary) beat McCain (a Careerist) and Romney (a Technocrat).

To be sure, a match-up between a Visionary and a Beer Candidate is a closer call.  But a true Visionary will usually beat a pure Beer Candidate.  Why? Because ideology and world view matter and because Visionaries are the candidates with the most sweeping ideas. (So Reagan would probably beat Clinton, and Obama would more than likely beat George W. Bush, but that is less clear.)

Only when two Visionaries run against each other do we have a true contest of ideas. These elections are, of course, rare and are impossible to predict using this model.

2.     Beer Candidates beat Careerists and Technocrats

“Relatability” is important for presidential candidates, which is why Beer Candidates have the upper hand over uninspired Technocrats and Careerists, who often have trouble connecting with regular people.  For example,

— Clinton (a Beer Candidate) beat George H.W. Bush (who ran his campaign for re-election as a Technocrat/Careerist) and Bob Dole (a Careerist, if ever there was one);
— George W. Bush (a Beer Candidate) beat Kerry (a Careerist).

3.    Technocrats lose to Visionaries and Beer Candidates (see Rules 1 and 2 above).

Technocrats are often the weakest presidential candidates. By focusing on good government and complicated policy details, Technocrats neither inspire nor come across as “relatable.” Thus,

— Romney (a Technocrat) lost to Obama (a Visionary);
— Dukakis (a Technocrat) lost to George H.W. Bush (who ran his first campaign as a Visionary/Careerist).

4.    But Technocrats can beat some Careerists.

The Technocrat will usually beat a Careerist who comes across as a party hack or someone who is more interested in his or her own career path than government service.  And because governors are, by definition, managers (as opposed to statesmen), Technocrats will often beat Careerists in a gubernatorial race.  See, for example,

— Mass. Governor Charlie Baker’s victory over Martha Coakley (more on this in the next installment).

5.  The outcome of a race involving a hybrid candidate depends on which side of the candidate the campaign chooses to emphasize.

Consider George H.W. Bush.  The elder Bush was, at heart, a Careerist: an experienced leader who had spent most of his adult life in political posts (Congressman, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ambassador to China, head of the CIA).  But he was the type of Careerist that people respected.  He came across as someone who chose a career in government out of a genuine desire to serve his country, rather than out of a desire to promote himself or because he lacked other options.

Bush, of course, had neither the vision of his predecessor (Reagan) nor the retail political skills of his son (George W).  But in 1988, two factors dramatically transformed his lackluster campaign and helped him make up a seventeen point deficit to win the election.

The first was that the Democrats nominated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis was the ultimate Technocrat. He even campaigned on the slogan that “this election is not about ideology, it is about competence.” But, like Bush, he was also a Careerist who had spent much of his professional life in government. Because Bush’s opponent was Technocrat/Careerist, Bush was not disadvantaged in the way that he would have been had he run against either a Visionary or a Beer Candidate (as he did four years later).

But the ’88 Bush campaign also had two secret weapons:  Lee Atwater and Peggy Noonan. Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager, used television advertising to amplify Dukakis’s image as a wonk and to mock the Duke’s belief that managerial skill is more important than ideas.

Bush was also keenly aware that he lacked what he famously called “that vision thing.” And so he hired Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, to help him articulate a few Visionary themes (“No new taxes,” “A thousand points of light”).

When Atwater and Noonan were done, Bush seemed positively inspiring compared to Dukakis.

Four years later, however, Bush ran for re-election not as a Visionary/Careerist (as he had in ’88), but as a Technocrat/Careerist (forced to raise taxes in the interest of fiscal responsibility).  And we all know how that ended – with Bill Clinton, a Beer Candidate, in the White House.

So, how does this theory play out here in Massachusetts? And what does it suggest for Campaign 2016?  After reading this blog, you can probably predict where I’m going.

But I will address each of these questions in-depth in forthcoming posts.

Stay tuned!

Jennifer C. Braceras

Jennifer C. Braceras

Jennifer C. Braceras is Editor of the NewBostonPost. This is the first of several blog posts on campaign leadership styles.