01/16/2008 11:38 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Like It Or Not, It's 'Likability'


Philosophers and scientists often say that "All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best."  Last night's presidential debate in Las Vegas showed nothing if not that the positions between the three Democratic candidates are pretty much equal.  That means that the explanation for who won the debate is very simple: likability.

Most big media pundits will probably be too self-important to dwell on it, but there was only one candidate on stage last night who seemed likable from start to finish.  There was only one candidate who sat comfortably, who spoke at length without coming off as loud or tense, and who consistently made the room erupt into giggles -- that's right, giggles -- including the moderators and the other candidates.

The winner?  Barack Obama.  Because he came across as more likable.

If you feel somewhat deflated by this conclusion, you are probably not alone. 

Barack Obama is an outstanding candidate for president -- whether or not he will make a good nominee is not the point. He would. They all would.

The point is that, for some reason, accepting the fact that a Democratic candidate wins a debate because he is more likable is something that makes a large number of Democrats squirm uncomfortably.  'Likability' as a deciding factor in a presidential election is something that many Democrats do not like very much.

There are three main reasons for that.   

First, Democrats like to think of themselves as good leaders because they are smart.  Of course, 'smart' and 'likable' do not always conflict with each other, but--they often do.  Barack Obama, a former law professor, is probably one of the smartest people in the country, if not the world.   And just like the other candidates, last night, he answered questions with a level of acumen that made the Republican debates seem like Reader's Digest versions of American policy.  But since everyone in the debate demonstrated that they were smart, it was not Obama's brains that distinguished him.  It was his smile, his comfort in his chair, and his one-liners. 

Second, Democrats remember that George W. Bush was elected twice on the idea that he was likable.  Even the most ardent critics of George W. Bush's policies admit that he was the candidate with whom Americans imagined themselves enjoying a beer.  Barack Obama has more in common with a ham sandwich than he does with President Bush, but still--Obama distinguishes himself time and time again as more likable. 

Third, Democrats know that the GOP smear machine likes nothing more than to beat their opposition by using turning strengths into weaknesses. Al Gore and John Kerry were both 'likable enough' before the GOP smear factories got a hold them.  By the end of the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, however, a plurality of voters thought Gore and Kerry were mechanical robots programmed to lie and hate Americans.  If Democrats nominate another candidate who is likable at the start, many worry, the same thing will be happen.  It may be difficult to imagine Barack Obama smeared as unfriendly and divisive, bu the Republicans have people on staff who are expert at bringing about exactly that kind of transformation in their opponents.

Democrats like to be seen as smart, they don't like how Bush got his nomination, and they worry about the GOP smear machine.

Given all this, why are so many Democrats pushing for a candidate who is the most likable? 

We could fall for all the tit-for-tat about experience, discrimination, and so forth, but none of those explanations pass the 'simplest is best' test.  The simplest explanation as to why Democrats are pushing likability is probably: TV.

Despite all the political buzz about blogs and citizen participation changing politics, most Democrats seem to tacitly agree that winning a presidential election comes down to how well your candidate does on TV. 

Nixon's five-o'clock shadow, Ford's tumbles, Dukakis' tank helmet, Gore's sighs, Kerry's stiffness: if the TV doesn't love you, history has shown, neither will the voters.  As long as TV has been a player in presidential elections, the political parties have secretly wished for a TV candidate. Sometimes, not so secretly.

Barack Obama is a great TV candidate.  He is, as the Hollywood moguls like to say, a 'natural.' The camera loves him.  The other candidates are not so fortunate. 

Oh, sure.  There are plenty of more complicated reasons that proved themselves in time.  But like it or not, Barack Obama won the debate because he was more 'likable' than all the rest.  Even the other candidates seem to like him. 

Like it or not, the presidential election is about 'likability.'


Cross posted from Frameshop.