Observers of the U.S. election have plenty of theories about how Obama and Romney will fare against one another. They assess current economic indicators and compare them to historical data. They gauge how demographic factors like education, income, race and urbanization affect how people vote. They pick apart the candidates' statements on hot-button policies like Medicare, immigration and taxes. Television "personalities" grapple with vague factors like whether candidates are "fresh," "trustworthy" or "someone you want to have beer with," and these sloppy assessments are presented as useful data. Pundits debate whether a great convention speech will change the course of a candidacy.
But almost never do political observers utilize the widely studied science of Jungian personality type. "Type," as measured by instruments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, among others, is the most solidly researched, widely used, and rigorously delineated tool we have at our disposal to understand how people actually relate to different personalities. Type offers important insights into how voters are likely to connect -- or not -- to candidates Romney and Obama. (For a previous analysis of Hillary Clinton's type, click here, and for a view on personality type in the fictional world of TV's "Modern Family," click here.)
What is Type? Type assesses four aspects of personality difference, based on the idea that each of us has inherent preferences about how to express these aspects. We aren't incapable of acting otherwise, but Type theory asserts that we strongly prefer certain ways of being. These aspects are:
- Energy - whether you get your fuel from the external world (Extraversion), or from yourself or your own personal space (Introversion).
- Taking in data - whether you perceive the world through concrete, known experience (Sensing), or whether you perceive it in terms of theoretical patterns and possibilities (iNtuition).
- Making decisions - whether you make decisions based on logic, objectivity and rules that apply across the board (Thinking) or whether you make decisions based on personal values, the effect on other people, or associative thinking (Feeling).
- Attitude toward closure - whether you prefer to keep taking in information, keeping options open, and avoiding hasty decisions (Perceiving) or whether you prefer to know where you stand, have things scheduled, and move on to the next thing (Judging).
The mix of facets results in 16 different types and each type tends to have certain predictable ways of expression and behavior. In the Type system, Romney is an ENTJ, and Obama is an ENFJ. A quick run-through of why:
Both are Extraverts. Both Romney and Obama are fueled by doing, talking and interacting with the external world. They prefer to think through options with a cabal of close advisers, rather than holding their own counsel. In expression, they resemble extraverts, putting more of their faces and bodies into speaking than introverts typically do. They come alive on the campaign trail. Extraversion doesn't preclude them from being thoughtful or keeping certain things to themselves, but they get energy from outside of themselves.
Both are iNtuitive (N) types. The two candidates think in terms of theoretical patterns and possibilities. Romney's CEO style and captain-of-industry career is typical of ENTJ's, and Obama's interest in following his passion for policy, reform and civic transformation is common for ENFJ's. In a sense, both are visionary, Romney in the business realm and Obama in the public policy realm. They are different expressions of the same "iNtuitive" way of seeing the world: "NT" Romney emphasizes the creation of coherent systems that generate value, and "NF" Obama emphasizes the creation of policies that touch on people's personal needs and values.
Both are Judging types. They are organized, scheduled and like to make decisions and move on. (A unique facet of this year's election: both candidates are always on time.) Nuance: as EN-J's, they interiorize their intuitive preference. This means that both are at their best in terms of ideas and strategy when they have some quiet time to reflect. As a contrast, consider ENTP Bill Clinton's fondness for discussing ideas with any and all as a way of fleshing out his thoughts. As my Type-expert friend, Rob Toomey, points out, in this regard Obama and Romney have more in common with fellow J-types Ronald Reagan (ENFJ) and Hillary Clinton (INTJ). They don't need to engage with others to explore deep pools of ideation.
Where the two differ is in their decision-making function and their core values. Though Obama varies in his emotionality (especially when debating) -- sometimes seeming cold and unexpressive, sometimes seeming warm and connecting- he is a Feeler.
I have various thoughts as to why Obama doesn't come off as an "F" consistently. It may have much to do with life his experience being a biracial black man in America, and needing to constantly gauge how other people might be reacting to him, judging him, and assessing him -- therefore he holds back and adjusts. (David Marannis made a similar point in his recent biography of the president.) This ability to gauge and adjust, incidentally, is also a Feeler skill and particularly true for ENFJs. In contrast, people with a Thinking preference tend to be less aware or naturally interested in how people react. Consider the befuddlement of INTJs Hillary Clinton and Al Gore trying to seem more "warm," or ISTP John McCain's tendency to lash out.
Romney is a clear Thinking type (T). He's consistently logical and objective in how he communicates. He seems honestly surprised when his words are taken out of context (for instance, when he said "I like firing people"). As an NT, he would assume that people would read the whole sentence (which referred to firing incompetent vendors, like bad insurance companies, surely an idea that most Americans wouldn't disagree with) rather than reacting emotionally to one sentence.
But it goes even further than this. As Toomey points out, the Thinker types that tend to come off as "someone I'd like to have a beer with" are usually Thinker/Perceiver types -- consider ESTP George W. Bush and ESTP John F. Kennedy. Thinker/Perceiver types can come off as playful, fun and easy to connect with. In contrast, Thinker/Judger types like Mitt Romney, John Kerry and Al Gore often come off as rigid or tone-deaf. Type observers generally name INTJ Richard Nixon as the only president elected in the last 50 years with the Thinker/Judger combination.
When Romney tries to turn on the charm, it comes off as flat and insincere. It's not because Romney is insincere, but because it's not his natural instinct to show he feels someone's pain, seek harmony, or modulate his message to different audiences. His natural instinct is to be logical, fact-based and precise. The moment-to-moment modulation that is easy for Obama -- when he feels like doing it -- is probably beyond the natural abilities of Romney.
So what does this mean in terms of the election? If we leave aside racial cleavages, electoral weighting that make the election largely dependent on seven to twelve swing states, and the role of the economy -- in other words, if we assume that a candidate's personality and ability to connect with voters matter -- then ENFJ Obama has a stronger position than ENTJ Romney.
Obama has an advantage with undecided voters. He is more likely to be found relatable, can adapt to different circumstances, and will find the right note to connect with audiences -- not to mention use humor effectively and with ease. Romney is going to continue to suffer from the problem of voters not feeling a connection with him - the idea that "he's not like me." Worse, the more Romney tries to go against the grain of his personality, the more likely he will end up seeming fake -- and end up pushing the undecided votes away. (To see how this has damaged Democrats, consider the aftereffects of John Kerry's football-playing routine, or when Al Gore laid the Big Kiss on Tipper).
The irony is that no presidential candidate resembles the average voter. Running for president requires such an unusual chain of life events that anyone who ends up running has long since left the realm of average people, if he was ever part of it. But, as with movie stars, we personally connect with some candidates more than others, and the ones we connect with have the advantage. If the election turns on how much voters can relate to a candidate, then it's Obama's to lose.