It is hat in the ring season, less than a year to the presidential primaries. As we listen to candidates, how are we going to measure them? There is an interesting contest developing on the Republican side, but there are far more competing in the contest to beat the incumbent on the Democratic side. In 2016 the Democrats had four candidates, but the Republicans had 16, using up all the oxygen before nominating the survivor. So what is the checklist that we voters will use to decide our choice in the primary and then in the general election. (Disclosure: I live in an open primary state, so I can vote in either one. That adds an extra challenge to my criteria.)
One factor that will affect the outcome is the difference between the parties in how they run primaries. The Republicans have winner- take-all primaries, so the candidate who finishes first, even with only 25% of the votes, gets all the delegates from that state. The Democrats assign delegates proportionally, which means the process will likely take longer and wear out the ultimate candidate before the general election campaign starts. On the other hand, the Democrats have more super delegates than the Republicans, so there is a secondary strategy of courting the establishment, which will probably hurt those candidates on the more left wing of the Democratic party.
Do we want to be partisan and select the candidate who appears to have the best chance of winning? The desire to win may favor white straight male candidates, although the Democrats successfully challenged that strategy with a charismatic candidate in 2008 and 2012. The success of female candidates in state and Congressional races in 2018 may suggest that the glass ceiling, and the persons of color ceiling, and even the heterosexual ceiling may be cracking if not shattering.
In the 2016 campaign, the word presidential was tossed around a lot. It means different things to different people. Trying to pick out the most presidntial candidate from a big field is a big challenge to the voter. Economics tells us that the more choices we have, the more we get confused and unable to decide. So each of us needs a checklist of what we are looking for, what makes one candidate more presidential than another. This is mine.
On both sides, we look for charisma. Very few of our recent winners lacked charisma. Bush 43, was probably the least charismatic of the lot, followed by Richard Nixon whose election reflected other factors. The magnetic appeal of a strong and persuasive personality has always mattered, but is even more important in an era when candidates are packaged and mass marketed. Despite all the attention given to promises and platforms, they probably matter less than the ability of the candidate to inspire trust and enthusiasm. Campaigning is marketing, and marketing is designed to appeal to the gut and the emotions more than to the reasoning mind.
The second factor, along with charisma, is vision. Often the campaign slogan is the most effective way of reducing the vision to a twitter or bumper sticker size–look at Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again and his promise of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. What is this candidate’s vision for the future? How closely does it match mine on issues of health care, environment, crime, gun safety, war and peace, immigration? Is this candidate, based on his or her record (and we have lots of senators running!), going to work to implement that vision? Is he or she pragmatic enough to work with the other party in crafting compromises?
The third factor is the people that the candidate surrounds himself or herself with. Whom do I want to appoint judges, agency heads, and the cabinet? Will this potential president listen to his advisors, or go it alone? To whom does the candidate listen? What is his leadership style–is he a loner or a team player?Does he make quick decisions or spend time reading, listening, and negotiating?
The fourth criterion is honesty, openness, trustworthiness, sincerity. (A sense of humor also helps!) In other words, character. Is there anything in the candidate’s past actions (or inactions) that makes me question whether he or she will be open and honest with the American people? Or to doubt that there is a commitment to and understanding of the demands of public service? These qualities are harder to assess, but in some ways the most important, because what one does is a product of who one is.
So as I start my sorting process, those are the criteria I will be looking for–charisma, vision, network and leadership style and character. Perhaps it’s time to start your own list. The primaries are only a year away.