The Riddle That Stumped Paul Krugman

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

Paul Krugman is not an easy guy to stump. But in Monday's column, he was at a loss to explain what people mean when they talk about presidential candidates -- Fred Thompson, for one -- being "authentic."

"Supposedly it means not pretending to be who you aren't," Krugman writes. "But that definition doesn't seem to fit the way the term is actually used in political reporting." He then duly points these guys are all about pretending: Thompson, for instance, leased a used pickup truck to drive around Tennessee in during his Senate campaign, presumably to pass himself off as something closer to a farmer than a highly-paid Washington, D.C. lawyer.

So what is this "authenticity" that political pros from both the left and right see in people like Thompson?

To those of us who study non-verbal communication, it looks like this blameless word has been pressed into service to describe something there's not a good word for: the body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone that conveys a person is comfortable with themselves and their place in the world, that they aren't conflicted about what they are feeling, and they don't much care what anyone else thinks of them. When homo authenticus says something, he says it like he means it. What's authentic or genuine about him is not so much his life story as his emotional expression.

What does this "authenticity" look like? Take a look at this commercial from Thompson's first Senate run. Try to ignore the horrible background musak and watch him as he talks. His words are simple, nothing you have to think too hard to come up with. His tone of voice is matter-of-fact, conversational, even as he gets exercised about them Washington politicians. He nods his head forward to emphasize strong points, but he also nods away to the side slightly, which shows he's more thoughtful and not threatening. His gaze is steady and the look on his face is serious, but his gestures are relaxed. Everything is in synch; they all tell the same story, because they all come straight from the gut. Or, at least, they seem to; it's worth remembering that Thompson is a professional actor.

Now, in his column Krugman laments that our media outlets pay so much attention to this "authenticity" thing in spite of the fact that it does such a demonstrably lousy job of predicting who governs well. After all, "authenticity" is one of those intangible things that Bush had that Kerry didn't, and everyone knows how well that's worked out.

But if "authenticity" really is shorthand for a certain kind of non-verbal communication skill, there is reason to believe that it might do a pretty good job of predicting who will win the election. Recent studies have shown that voters' reaction to candidates' non-verbals is a very strong predictor of who actually wins. A Princeton study found you can predict who wins an election seven times out of 10 just by watching how someone who has never seen the candidates before reacts to pictures of them. A similar Harvard study found that people who briefly watched silent videos of candidates speaking to crowds were able to predict who won about as well as campaign spending figures did. (Full disclosure: my communications firm helped sponsor and conduct that last one. You can try the study yourself on our site until our server crashes. For a slightly fuller discussion of the science and its political implications, see my earlier piece.)

So when media outlets comment on who seems most authentic, there is good reason for them to think they are on to a newsworthy topic, even if they're using a funny word for it.

It could be true that the focus on authenticity is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if only the media stuck to the issues then voters wouldn't bother with such trifles. But then, for every Paul Krugman, there is a Charles Krauthammer or a George Will, and for swing voters without the education and/or wherewithal to sort out whose arguments are most logically sound, it's a lot easier to judge candidates the way they judge people every day: by who leaves emotional impressions that inspire confidence in their character.

In case this all sounds too depressing, I should add that the emotional impressions that determine how swing voters vote (and which candidate wins) are not left by the candidates' non-verbals alone: their words matter a lot too. On this point, check out Drew Westen's forthcoming book The Political Brain. (Or if depression is your thing, you can also check out the infamous memo pollster Frank Luntz wrote for the GOP on how to address environmental issues to neutralize Democrats' political advantage there).

I should also say that despite the unsolved riddle at its heart, this was a typically excellent Krugman column. After all, one of the best ways to convince voters to focus more on the issues that matter is to make them understand how some of the things that people naturally focus on -- like emotional impressions of candidates' non-verbal communication -- often have little to do with who will enact good policies.

It's just also important that people who care about good policies -- i.e. Democrats -- understand that swing voters will naturally vote based on their emotional impressions, and those are shaped more by candidates' communication, verbal and non-verbal, than by issue positions. That's why it would be awfully nice for us to have a candidate who can do that "authenticity" thing too.