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The Emotional Appeal of Presidential Candidates Who Are Not Too Intelligent: Why Republican Candidate John McCain’s Poor Academic Record May Be One of His Strongest Political Assets


Friday, May. 30, 2008

I ended my last column by raising the question of why, for decades, Americans have consistently elected the less intelligent of the two presidential candidates between whom they have been asked to choose, and by asking how the Democrats might deal with the fact that they have two highly intelligent potential candidates in this year’s presidential race. Since then, the New York Times has also addressed this issue. With the headline “The Snare of Privilege: ‘Elitist’ is the label they all run from. But why, exactly, are Americans so allergic to it?”, the Times noted, ironically, that the least privileged of the contenders in the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama, will still have to fight being tagged as privileged, and so ensnared.

In this column, I’ll consider why this is the case, and suggest that the label of privilege far better fits McCain than Obama.

In Fairness, McCain Should Be Considered More Privileged Than Obama

According to the Times, Obama’s problem stems from the fact that he “holds two Ivy League degrees at a time when not all Americans accept the notion of an Ivy League education as a triumph of American opportunity.” Based on information from the Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Nicholas Lemann, it is reported that average Americans are more likely to respect “the guy who owns a Toyota dealership in Marietta, Ga., and who grew up poor” than to respect an Ivy Leaguer. For presidential election purposes in recent years, those who attend Ivy League schools have been considered to be “privileged,” and meritocracy, according to most Americans, is not to be found in the Ivy League.

If truth be told, however, Obama earned his Ivy League degrees the hard way, while the child of privilege in this year’s presidential contest is John McCain. McCain obtained his appointment to the U.S. Navy Academy because his father and grandfather had been there, and McCain’s path to the Senate was made easy because his predecessor, Barry Goldwater, liked his father, Admiral Jack McCain.

Yet McCain always passes over his privileged history, while making much of the fact that he finished at the bottom of his class at Annapolis to establish his bona fides as a regular guy. In addition, McCain invokes his laudable Vietnam POW experience as evidence of his physical toughness and stamina, qualities to which regular guys can easily aspire.

Identifying with Obama is more difficult for some voters. One reason may be that, as Ed Rollins, the longtime GOP strategist who has a keen eye for political reality, further explained to the Times, not only are Obama’s Ivy League degrees a potential problem, but so is the training those degrees gave him. As Ed put it, “one of the problems that Obama has is that he gives a magnificent speech, he can inspire massive crowds, but he seems aloof up close.”

Overall, the Times’ report suggests that to get elected president today the candidate must “make an emotional connection [with average American voters]” which helps to win their “trust and confidence” – which are essential. Trust and confidence are not won by academic pedigree or prestigious educational success. To the contrary, for (too) many voters, it is necessary to shed such accomplishments to win this kind of loyalty. Ivy League degrees are considered by many as indicia of arrogance and privilege (whether such qualities belong to the degreeholder or not).

It is a shame that this is the situation, but I must agree with the assessment set forth by the Times that Hillary Clinton and John McCain have worked hard to convey that they are “regular” people, and that it is necessary for all our candidates to do so, because emotions, not reason, rule our electoral decisions.

Emotions, Not Reason, Will Elect the Next President

Dr. Drew Westen, a clinical and political psychologist who teaches at Emery University, has literally looked inside the mind of partisan voters with MRI scanning equipment, and confirmed that emotions dominate our voting decisions. Westen writes about our emotionally-driven democracy in his recent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotions In Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Public Affairs, 2007), and his findings are not good news for Democrats, unless they change their ways.

Westen focuses on, among other matters, the ability of the Republicans to successfully portray John Kerry during the 2004 presidential race as a liberal elitist – an image that Kerry helped foster with his faux hunting trip and topped off with his windsurfing photographs. Yet, importantly, much of the Westen material is also directly applicable to the Obama campaign. For instance, Westen reports that Republicans have figured out how to play upon the emotions of the voters – selecting winning emotional strategies such as running regular-guy candidates who are not exceptionally bright, and to whom voters can more easily relate emotionally. In addition, Republicans have mastered the craft of painting Democrats – and their issues – as emotionally out of touch with contemporary voters.

Westen and his colleagues found “[t]he political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision.” Democrats, however, like to appeal to reason. While this resonates with many key elements of the Democratic Party, it simply does not work across the board with all voters.

In short, voters are going to react to McCain and Obama in the general election this fall with their hearts, not their heads. The Times makes the point that if Obama is currently perceived as arrogant, elitist, and a liberal Ivy Leaguer to boot, then he will be in trouble. This is why Hillary Clinton is winning the white, working-class voters in states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky; she is the one who has managed to emotionally connect with them.

I am not sure that Obama can make this emotional leap he must make to win the presidency. My concern comes from Obama’s writings, particularly in Dreams of My Father, and also from reports I have received from people who have encountered Obama in offstage moments.

For example, a friend of mine ran into Obama while he was with a couple of his aides, at a non-campaign event at a small-town YMCA. Obama was going to play basketball. Rather than invite the locals to join – or even let them watch his traveling pickup game – the Secret Service asked six guys (including the fellow who gave me the report) to end their regular Wednesday evening half-court game, so Obama could have the court. While the request was polite, the players did not feel that they had any choice in the matter. All the while, Obama ignored these guys and gave the impression that he was something of a big shot, taking a break from his campaign, and did not want to be bothered talking to them, being watched by them, or even being nice when not campaigning.

This bit of arrogance did not play well. My friend – a Democrat – was left feeling that Obama is not a natural politician, but rather is still learning. (But few learn in a race for the presidency.) His Republican fellow players, meanwhile, had harsher words for Obama, and surely won’t be crossing party lines in his support. Granted, this incident occurred fairly early in the campaign, but it is very difficult to act as if you enjoy people, if in fact you don’t. This, I suspect, is going to be a problem for Obama with many voters.

The Emotions of the “Race Issue”

Dr. Westen also addressed the emotionally-loaded question of race in passing in The Political Brain. He explains that Obama, like every African-American candidate for Senate or President in the near future, needs to study the effectively-orchestrated Republican campaign run against Congressman Harold Ford (also an African-American), when he sought to win a Senate seat in Tennessee in 2006. It was a “psychologically sophisticated” undertaking built on racism. It worked. And Republicans got away with it, paying no price for their underhanded tactics, but rather winning a Senate seat.

The Democrats were fearful of talking about race in the Ford campaign, Westen observes. This was a mistake. They failed to call attention to the racist campaign being waged against them, and they did not call the GOP on its morally reprehensive decision to play to people’s prejudice. The same kid of racist campaign has already started with Obama, and if the Obama campaign and his supporters do not call attention to it, John McCain will gain an easy victory, only to bring us the third term of the Bush/Cheney Administration.

Westen has loaded his 426-page book with not only insightful analysis of the dominate role emotions play in electing our presidents (and other officials), but also sharp suggestions for how Democrats can start playing catch-up before they are once again shut out of the White House. Only one Democratic candidate for president has effectively used emotions against the Republicans: Bill Clinton, and he did it twice. He also recommends this book. As I read this book, and thought about the Obama campaign, I realized that the indispensable asset that Hillary Clinton might bring to a Democratic ticket this year is emotion.

Granted, no one offends the hardcore Republicans more than the Clintons. But Democrats are not going to regain the White House by trying to convert Republicans, and thus, the emotion Hillary evokes could actually help Obama win, by spurring Democrats to turn out and vote. Indeed, the only people who should worry about Hillary’s addition to the ticket are Republicans – who know that she, better than most, can stir the emotions needed to win in November.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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