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Tom Alderman Headshot

What Issues? It's About Personality!

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Whether we admit it, or not, presidential campaigns are more about personality than policies, temperament over brains. Has been since broadcasting began. Not that issues don't count but, by-and-large, they aren't necessarily the deciders. Sure, the country was in a deep 1932 depression but the election tipping point was personality. Herbert Hoover was perceived as a stiff collared, aloof, gloomy Gus with zero empathy skills to dig the country out of its misery. Roosevelt was seen as ebullient, optimistic, with a hearty laugh and a can-do style to fix things. Wasn't very book smart but had a first class temperment, said Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Mr. Happy over Mr. Dour.

Kennedy-Nixon, both basically moderate guys on policy. The big issues of the day? A so-called Republican 'missile gap' which turned out not to exist. (imagine WMDs) And something about Quimoy and Matsu, two islands off the China Coast that weren't very important then, now, or ever. It was on TV where Kennedy came across as handsome, charming, vigorous and comfortable in his own skin. Nixon had five-o'clock shadow, sweat sparkling off his upper lip, and body language that suggested wood. Johnny Cool tops Dickie Dark.

Bush-Kerry. Polls showed a majority favored Kerry on the issues, including an unpopular war. But war hero Kerry was successfully defined as an elite, wine sipping, big hair, phony. Smart, but tres French, which means un-American. Kerry was wind surf. Bush was baseball, friendly and accessible. Didn't matter he was a 'C' student, and often sounded inarticulate. All the polls showed he's the one folks would rather have a beer with. Barbecue Guy beats Pepe Le Coif-Head.

Now we have McCain and Obama. This time the issues are more definable. But if both these guys keep modifying their positions - drilling for oil, Iraq troop withdrawal timelines, etc -- the issues get a bit blurry. So, likability IS crucial.

Both campaigns well understand this. Which is why the Obamians believe that, on the issues, a majority of voters favor their guy. They're convinced the only way McCainiacs can bring down their man is to define him as an aloof, arrogant, arugula-munching elitist who's an un-patriotic, lightweight celebrity.

Conversely, Obama's campaign defines McCain as an out-of-touch, cranky geezer with questionable judgment, hot tempered, awkward reading a speech or holding hands with the Dalai Lama. Senator Risky vs. Senator Magoo.

So if you buy the notion that personality is the final arbiter in this election, who comes out ahead? Lifetime TV's recent "Every Woman Counts" survey might provide a clue. When asked if they were to carpool to save money on gas, 51% surveyed would like to share a ride with Obama. 31% prefer McCain.

When asked who they'd rather vacation with, the Obamas or the McCains, nearly half of respondents (49%) want to be with the Obama family and one-quarter (26%) would rather hang with the McCains. Almost 20% take a pass on both.

This is the Internet-TV age where the candidates are seen by more people than ever before in our history. Like it, or not, we do tend to judge them on how they say, more than what say. It's their demeanor, the 93% of what an audience gets off a speaker, as opposed to the 7% for their words, according to Stanford research. So, keep an eye on the likability factor in this election. After all, we tend to pick our spouses based on personality, compatibility and looks. It's not much different with our Presidents. Of course, with marriage, if you don't like your spouse, you get a divorce. Over 50% of us do. Unfortunately with a president, we're stuck with the guy for 4-8 years.