Policy or Platitude?
It’s September 26, 1960.
Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon are seated across from each other, waiting for the first of the four 1960 presidential debates to begin. While the two candidates both had incredibly strong and comparable campaigns, their preparedness for the debate was anything but.
In the weeks leading up to the debate, Nixon suffered from a bout of the flu, followed by a two-week hospital stay due to an infection from a bad knee injury. Having insisted on campaigning up until the debate, Nixon entered the stage looking pale, tired, and sick. His gray suit made matters even worse, appearing to blend into the background. His counterpart, on the other hand, had spent the whole weekend resting and preparing for the debate. Kennedy appeared healthy, tanned, and confident, sporting a strong black suit.
If this debate was a typical debate before 1960, these differences would not have mattered to the result. You can’t hear posture or complexion through a radio. But unfortunately for Nixon, this debate was the first ever televised presidential debate. And while Nixon had won over radio listeners by incredibly slim margins, Kennedy’s televised performance had won the eye of the public by a landslide. Kennedy’s victory marked a turning point in American politics. In a world where television and media image have become a big part of politics, presentation is just as important as policy.
Everyone knows that confidence, charisma, and image are important characteristics for a strong leader to have. In a study conducted by researchers from Cornell University and the University of Chicago, researchers discovered that individuals could guess who won an election 60 percent of the time by just watching video clips of the candidates. But not as many know just how important these characteristics can be — the slightest lack of them can expose the mortality of a campaign, while an abundance of them can grant a politician immortality. For example, Rick Perry tanked his 2012 presidential campaign after blanking on live television for an entire minute while forgetting the name of the third federal agency he’d get rid of in office (he later clarified that his answer was the department he currently heads). 2004 Democratic candidate Howard Dean ended his campaign prematurely with his infamous “Dean Scream.” At a campaign rally, he grew so excited that he emitted an incredibly high pitched scream — the next morning the video had gone viral, and his campaign had evaporated. On the other hand, former President Bill Clinton’s popularity was his saving grace during his impeachment proceedings. The day after his impeachment, his approval rate was a shocking 72 percent. Two-thirds of Americans opposed his removal from office. Public opinion played such a large role in his acquittal that he is reported to have exclaimed, “Thank God for public opinion” afterwards. Public image and presentation matter.
And the reason they matter is because the first thing people see when they buy something is the package. It’s how Apple managed to become the first trillion dollar company in America. A typical ad for an Android or a PC describes all the newest features, specs, and perks of the product being sold. But a typical Apple ad rarely goes in depth when it comes to value propositions. They just show a sleek, well-designed product that appeals to the eye, and the advertisements end with the iconic Apple logo. Yes, features are important to any rational consumer. But when Apple convinces you to buy an iPhone or a Macbook, they don’t sit there and list all the features to you. They sell you a vision — the features come with it. A good leader doesn’t get elected by vomiting policies and ideas at their voters. They sell their voters a vision first, and the policies and ideas fill in afterward.
Democratic candidates will have to keep this concept in mind going into 2020. The left cannot afford to put forward a candidate who spews policy positions and ideas but has no charisma or energy. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is a good example of why this approach is not the best. While Warren’s diverse progressive platform is quite inspiring, her public image at the moment is not. She was only able to rake in $299 thousand on her first day of campaigning, falling far short of Bernie Sanders’s $5.9 million and even Kamala Harris’s $1.5 million. Warren’s ideas may live on for a long time, but unless she can recover from her slow start, her campaign may not. Still, this isn’t to say that values and policy positions don’t matter. Beto O’Rourke’s energy and charisma helped him burst out of the gates after announcing his campaign, raising $6.1 million in his first 24 hours. But it hasn’t taken long for the public to see past his persona and criticize his conservative-leaning voting record, comments about his wife, and violent fiction writings as a teenager. While these blemishes won’t tank his campaign, they’ve certainly complicated it.
Rather than field a candidate with just great policies or field a candidate with great image, the Democratic party has to approach nominating their 2020 candidate the same way a successful tech company would sell a smartphone — valuing presentation just as much as practicality.