As Democrats ponder their recent election losses and pundits wonder how it is possible that approximately 17% of the electorate could support President Obama, but voted for Donald Trump, many simply shake their heads and wonder how this could happen. There are, of course, many theories: sexism and Democrats allegedly abandoning the working class and rural America are commonly mentioned. However, almost nobody mentions the one thing that President Obama and Donald Trump have in common. They both have tremendous charisma which enables them to convey powerful messages. Indeed, when I googled “images for charisma” these are the first two photographs that showed up.
Understanding both charisma and messaging are critical to any successful political campaign. Of course, charisma matters more when discussing specific candidates and messaging goes beyond candidates as it also includes issue campaigns.
In the case of charisma, Hillary Clinton conceded that she simply does not have it. That may have been wise for her to simply be honest about it. But acknowledging a flaw does not make the flaw go away. Of course, nearly 65 million people voted for Hillary Clinton, nearly 2.5 million more than voted for Donald Trump, which means that charisma is not the only deciding factor and for many people, Hillary Clinton may have been more charismatic than Donald Trump. But, given our electoral college system, as well as the results in the Congressional and gubernatorial elections, serious political analysis cannot ignore the fact that Donald Trump was able to galvanize far more people to attend his rallies which helped to generate media attention in a way that smaller attendance at Hillary Clinton’s rallies simply could not match.
It is true that charisma alone does not automatically result in winning elections. One need only look as far back as Richard Nixon to understand that Americans will occasionally elect candidates who simply have no charisma. But in order for those candidates and their issues to prevail, they must overcome their lack of charisma with powerful messaging that enables them to win elections. Whether by coincidence or design, it is worth noting that both Nixon and Trump used silent majority messaging to win their elections.
A quick look at some of the hot button issues of our time demonstrates why many traditionally Republican issues have galvanized such a strong following. For example, if you put your own views aside, and you do not have strong feelings about abortion, it is fairly easy to see why the message of: pro-life is more compelling than pro-choice. After all, who is against life?
In the case of the private school voucher debate, the pro-voucher campaign succeeds because it wisely uses the phrase pro-choice and in this case, the anti-voucher campaign simply has no galvanizing message other than it is anti-voucher.
Although it was ultimately abandoned as failed policy, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind reform of federal education law passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in 2001 and remained the law of the land despite widespread acknowledgment of how poorly it was working until 2015, because of its name. After all, who could argue with the basic concept of no child left behind? Regardless of how the law failed, the name carried such a powerful message that it sustained despite years of bi-partisan recognition that it did not come close to fulfilling its mission.
Although President Obama was able to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress, and the name appeared to carry a good message at the time, it is likely to be abandoned or at least significantly modified by the next Congress not just because of the election results. The simple fact is that unless you receive a subsidy, the Affordable Care Act is not affordable! This is a case of the original messaging running so contrary to reality, that its name may help to bring its own demise.
On the charisma front, it behooves any political campaign to keep this critical factor in mind as it searches for successful candidates, especially in large scale statewide or national elections where TV appearances will be frequent. Failure to do so will result in losing elections in most cases regardless of whether voters agree with the views of the candidate.
Messaging is manufactured and its success starts with listening to what voters care about and testing messages with focus groups. Although I am not a political insider, I am a keen political observer and I have heard enough whining about voters who vote against their own interest to understand that such whining does not win elections or issue campaigns. Listening to voters and crafting messages that they want to hear and are congruent with the values of the candidate, party or issue is how campaigns are won. Patience and perseverance are critical as voters have demonstrated that they will easily switch parties based on charisma and message.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.