By Frank Blechman
I am something of a policy nerd (good at analysis but lacking the charisma to be a wonk). I like to hear important policies discussed in detail, with backup materials available for further investigation. I spent enough time in academia to appreciate footnotes. I believe good policy depends on good facts.
Yet, I recognize that elections are not about facts. The election will not be won by the candidate with the best policies, or the best policy papers. The election will turn on emotions. That is not altogether a bad thing. Emotions have their “truth” too.
Further, leadership is always as much emotional as anything else. Leaders have only one thing the rest of us don’t have: followers.
Why follow? Mostly, we lack confidence in our own assessments. We don’t think we are as informed, or smart, or practiced in a particular art or craft. If we are too lazy or too busy to get down into the details to make a good assessment for ourselves, we look to others who claim to have such expertise. We even buy books about self-help. Do we really think others know what would make our lives better than we know ourselves? Maybe not, but still, we are encouraged to have others tell us to do what we thought all along.
Now, which emotion-driven elements are likely to be most important in this election?
- Enthusiasm. Does the candidate excite me (positively or negatively)? No matter how thoughtful, sincere, and prepared a candidate is, that candidate cannot lead if s/he is boring. I might want to listen. I might try to listen. In our exciting fast-paced, always-something-else-to-watch-or-do world, my attention will drift away. Being a nerd, I might come back later to catch up, but most folks won’t.
- Understandability. Does the candidate speak in a way I can understand? Is s/he talking to me? Is the candidate making something simpler or more complicated? If I missed the point the first time, will s/he say it again to give me another shot at it? Being a nerd, I appreciate nuance. Most folks don’t.
- Trust. This may be the most bewildering of all emotions. We trust others more because of our own needs to trust than because others are trustworthy. If one candidate is telling me that s/he can solve my problems while another candidate tells me how difficult it will be, whom do I trust? I need somebody to help me fix something. Being a nerd, I might ask if the promiser has delivered in the past or actually has the knowledge/skill to do the job. Most folks won’t.
In 1960, conventional wisdom said that John Kennedy won the first televised presidential candidate debate, and that his win propelled him to a razor-thin victory in the election. Research showed that people who listened to the debate on the radio or read the transcript thought Nixon won. Those who watched the debate on TV saw Nixon sweating uncomfortably, while JFK looked cool, relaxed, and confident. It didn’t matter so much what they said, or who had the most facts. Kennedy made viewers feel better. It was emotional.
Voters who “like” Donald J. Trump will vote for him, regardless of what he says or does. Voters who don’t “like” him will vote against him, or not vote at all. Same with Joe Biden. Those are the “facts” that matter.
I am not saying that it doesn’t matter what candidates say or do. Although, in last week’s column on this blog, I argued that late-breaking news will have less impact in this election than in the past because so many more votes will have been cast earlier than November 3. I also argued that there are few if any undecided voters, because our “feelings” about the candidates are already well formed. Voters who “like” Donald J. Trump will vote for him, regardless of what he says or does. Voters who don’t “like” him will vote against him, or not vote at all. Same with Joe Biden. Those are the “facts” that matter.
Knowledge can change feelings. But it’s a slow process. We are now less than 30 days from the election. Those of us who love facts and wish we could persuade others to vote our way have just about run out of time to do that.