by Paul W. Barada
---- — Now that we’re entering another mid-term election cycle perhaps it’s time to reflect on the factors that really determine why we elect people to high state and national public offices. If one looks back over the last several presidential and gubernatorial elections, what have been the predominate qualities that have seemed to determine the outcomes? Has it consistently been the election of the person most qualified to do the job? No, that seldom appears to have been the case.
On both sides of the political aisle, other factors besides experience for the job seem to have swayed the electorate. Starting with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, let’s look at some of the qualities that typically win elections. Jack Kennedy was handsome, and well-spoken, and he could command the attention of an audience. Kennedy was obviously qualified for the job of being president having served in both the House and the Senate, but he won primarily on the basis of his sophisticated stage presence, good looks, and, in his case, the good fortune of having a beautiful wife. In other words, millions of people, women in particular, voted for Jack Kennedy because he had movie star good looks.
On the other side of the political fence, we have Ronald Reagan, a former two-term Governor of California, but, more importantly, a candidate who had extensive training and experience as an actor. He defeated incumbent President Jimmy Cater in 1980. Reagan’s experience as Governor of California qualified him for the presidency, but his “stage presence,” more than anything else, gave him a decided edge over President Carter who was a quiet and drab sort of fellow by comparison. Stated another way, Ronald Reagan looked and acted presidential, thanks to his acting experience. Of equal importance was Reagan’s ability to think on his feet and field questions from the Washington press corps with style and studied eloquence. He also had what has been described as rugged good looks. His qualifications for the job really didn’t matter to most voters.
Closer to home, all one had to do was see Evan Bayh once to know that he could win just about any election for which he chose to run. He was strikingly handsome and was a polished speaker – and he had an almost magical stage presence. Furthermore, it was obvious that Governor Bayh would be the nominee for the United States Senate half way through his second term as Governor of Indiana. Governor Bayh easily became Senator Bayh in 1999. Hoosiers overwhelmingly voted for him on the basis of his good looks and commanding presence. Men and women, as well as young voters, chose Bayh for reasons other than his qualifications to hold public office. At best, his qualifications were a secondary consideration because he “looked the part.”
While there always are exceptions, the foregoing examples clearly illustrate a couple of important points about the electability of candidates for high public office. The three essential qualities required to be elected anything, from governor of a state to President of the United States, are good looks, stage presence, and highly polished speaking skills. All the rest – previous experience in public office, education, and other noteworthy accomplishments – really don’t matter. What causes most people to vote for one candidate over another are good looks, the ability to command the attention of an audience, and highly polished speaking ability.
The sad truth of the matter is the voting public will normally cast their ballots based on their emotions rather than on a careful evaluation of which candidate will do the best job. That clearly was the case with President Obama – with one additional factor thrown in for good measure. President Obama clearly had those three basic requirements on his side: he has strong stage presence, he is handsome, and he is a highly polished public speaker. Not much experience to prepare him for the nation’s highest office, but, as we’ve seen, experience doesn’t matter when people vote with their emotions.
That additional factor I just mentioned was he was the first serious African-American candidate for the nation’s highest office in the history of the Republic. While race should have nothing to do with determining who will be the governor of a state, or a member of the Congress, or President of the United States, it would be naive not to admit that race was the fourth element that determined the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. It was, for lack of a better term, the “novelty factor” of the candidacy of Barack Obama, especially among young independent voters and among the African-American community. People of color would have voted for candidate Obama even if he had been the least qualified candidate ever to seek the nation’s highest office – simply because of his race.
Barack Obama had all three prerequisites, plus the “novelty” of being the first African-American candidate for President of the United States. Combine all that and it was clearly a winning combination five-plus years ago.
One is bound to ask the question: When will the voting public stop voting with their emotions and start rationally considering the qualifications of candidates before deciding whom to elect to high public office? The prospects don’t look good. How emotionally novel will it be, for instance, if there’s a chance to elect the first woman President of the United States in 2016?
That’s—30—for this week.