“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase popularized by James Carville, a chief strategist in Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, leveraging that election year’s recession to portray incumbent President George H.W. Bush as a rich elitist, out of touch with the average American’s economic anxiety.
Clinton, in contrast, who told the American people he felt their pain, resonated as a sympathetic populist.
Recently, James Baker, a formidable political strategist in his own right and a high-ranking member in both the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that he “always believed that the three most important factors that decide elections are the economy, the economy and the economy.”
With all due respect to Messrs. Carville and Baker, they’re both wrong. A far more reliable predictor of winning the White House is likability.
In my 2015 book “Grumpy Old Party,” I emphasized that point by asking whether voters really liked “the sighing, droning Al Gore” or the “caustic, acerbic John Kerry” better than they liked George W. Bush, who beat them in 2000 and 2004, respectively.
I also wondered if “the ornery septuagenarian John McCain” was really more likable than Barack Obama, the “rock star” politician to whom he lost in 2008.
And I pointed out that in 2012, challenger Mitt Romney failed to connect with the voters, resulting in a re-election victory for Obama, in whose first term the economy grew at a mere snail’s pace while joblessness persisted.
At first glance, the likability theory appeared to crumble in 2016, given that the winner, Donald Trump, was (and still is) so intensely loathed and vilified by tens of millions of Americans — including Democrats, establishmentarian Republicans, the media, academia, Hollywood and even Wall Street — to the point that the term Trump Derangement Syndrome is widely used to describe that phenomenon.
Yet, one has to consider that his opponent that year, Hillary Clinton, was arguably every bit as despised by her detractors and not nearly as adored by her supporters.
All anyone would have to do decades from now to understand the 2020 election is watch the footage of the first debate between Trump and challenger Joe Biden. That event crystallized the dynamic: a strong, sharp, charismatic, browbeating bulldog pitted against a mild, meek, stammering, stymied and overmatched kind, humble and gentle person.
Trump was more often the aggressive interrupter throughout the contest, even prompting Chris Wallace to commit the inexcusable (yet, regrettably, not unprecedented) act of transforming from moderator to debate surrogate. Even so, Trump held his own against the Biden/Wallace tandem quite well.
Which type of president did the nation prefer, given the binary choice of a powerful, blunt, blustering Type-A personality and a timid, milquetoast gentleman? A few weeks later, we all found out the answer.
Trump had bounced back with a strong performance on Oct. 22 that was forcefully critical yet still within the bounds of acceptable political warfare, but it was too little too late. As John Kennedy proved in his 1960 debates with Richard Nixon, first impressions count for a lot, and debates are a great way of bringing candidates into the living rooms of so many Americans who until that moment truly are oblivious — whether or not by design — to presidential politics.
Speculation abounds as to whether Trump — who gained more votes than any sitting president in history and remains wildly popular among legions of Republican voters — will try again in 2024.
He tested the waters at a live rally in North Carolina on June 5. Just like in that October debate, Trump strongly criticized Democratic governance without resorting to middle school cafeteria rhetoric like “Sleepy Joe” and “Crooked Hillary.”
Throngs of Trump supporters pleaded with him to act more “presidential” after winning in 2016, and though he promised to do so — adding that he’d act so presidential we’d all be thoroughly bored — he apparently forewent the behavioral change so as not to blunt his luster.
Those folks wonder if he would still be president now had he taken their advice, and whether he finally realizes that it really is all about likability, stupid. After all, one category in which Trump consistently beat Biden in poll after poll was his ability to handle the economy.
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