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Candidate charisma a key to winning the White House

02 / 15 / 2020

Heading into the Nevada caucuses, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg are the two frontrunners out of a Democratic field that once claimed 25 horses. So how did a 37-year-old mayor of South Bend and a 78-year-old Democratic Socialist from Vermont get to the head of that pack?

Of course, there’s more than one factor. But the biggest reason, in a word, is raw charisma. Both of these candidates possess a special quality that is actually very rare in politics. You know it when you see it — because you feel it. Thinking about this over the weekend reminded me of the exact moment when I knew that Barack Obama had enough of this magic to overcome ALL of the odds to become president.

On December 12, 2006, I was at a friend’s house to watch Monday Night Football. The cold-open segment showed Obama seated at his Senate desk in DC, speaking for 60 seconds in a very serious tone about a big decision that the country was waiting to hear. It made the viewer think that this was the moment Obama might announce that indeed he was going to run for president.

Near the end, he says: “I would like to announce, to my hometown of Chicago, and to all of America, that I am ready…”

He stops, puts a Bears cap on, and then finishes: “for the Bears to go all the way, baby!” He then points at the camera, with the MNF orchestra music rising in the background, and belts out: “Dun dun dun duhhh!” Right on key. And then he flashes that million-dollar smile.

My friend’s father, sitting in a big ‘ol leather recliner, belted out a laugh of satisfaction that you could have heard five blocks away. He was positively tickled.

I already knew what a talent the future president was, having managed an opponent’s campaign in the 2004 Senate Democratic Primary. Obama ultimately left us and six other candidates in the dust.

But when he took that risk on national TV and pulled it off like the camera was both his best friend and co-conspirator, that’s what clinched it for me. Any concern I’d had as a political observer about his name, race, experience level, etc., was out the window.

People want to be inspired by political candidates. Especially those running for the presidency. They want to feel something. Voting is an emotional act. And if you go back and look at the popular/two-term American presidents, you can see this.

JFK inspired a generation. RFK was doing this, too, until he was taken from us.

Reagan was a master at sunshine. Clinton, a master at listening, absorbing your pain and reflecting it right back to you.

W. may have been a terrible president — but he was a likable candidate. He had a quality that people identified with. Gore, whom I once wrote a speech for and who was incredibly charming in person, did not have that quality in public. John Kerry, who I worked for in 2004, had even less of it.

After Obama, we got Trump. While this president is a disgusting human being, he knows how to do television — and he inspires HIS people. Anyone who doesn’t think Hustler Don has charisma in front of a camera or live audience doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

All of which brings us to today, and why Sanders and Buttigieg are leading the pack. They are about as different as two candidates can be, outside of their skin color. But they both have that thing. That special quality. Even if it’s two different brands of it.

Sanders is fantastic at television. No “ums.” No hesitation. He knows what he wants to say and he’s going to say it just as he is. Why do millions of young people love Bernie? It’s not just because he promises a great deal of stuff at no cost. It’s because he’s REAL. He embodies that hackneyed term: “authentic.” He’s yelling at you, just like Larry David is on Curb — and that’s why Larry David is like a body-double when he does Bernie on SNL.

(to really understand this, listen to Bernie’s voice in this spot)

Buttigieg is the other side of Sanders. He’s young and smooth and never yells. Mayor Pete just flows. He’s whip-smart so he doesn’t have to “um” and “uh” either. He knows how to think on his feet, make real jokes in real-time, and he’s got his own boyish smile thing going on. Pete inspires people in a different way than Bernie — more from an intellectual place. But without that natural charisma, it wouldn’t mean a thing. He’s got it.

There are a whole lot of other candidates who are (or were) in this primary who brought great brains and records of accomplishment. But without that special quality, forget it.

Mike Bloomberg might be the nominee, but it will not because of charisma. It will be in spite of his lack of it.

Joe Biden will not be the nominee, and I wrote this a long time ago. Great guy. Great man. A survivor and an excellent Senator and Vice President. Very likable. But when he’s in front of audiences or TV interviewers, he just doesn’t have it. Talks too long. No rhythm and he forces way too much. There is a reason he never earned any traction in prior attempts.

Amy Klobuchar has everything she needs on paper to be worthy of the nomination. The New York Times and the New Hampshire newspapers have endorsed her for this reason. The Houston Chronicle joined them today. I believe she could be an excellent president, and she finally had a big moment in NH. But I do worry that she doesn’t have that special charisma. Lots of rehearsed lines and a lack of spontaneity in TV appearances. That’s not to say Amy can’t beat Trump (any of them can if voters turnout). But the truth is that she does not inspire the same way that Bernie and Pete do.

It is one of the great ironies of politics: You can be incredibly worthy of the office you’re running for — but depending on the field you’re running against — a lack of charisma can be fatal.

I have watched this up close. I’ve worked for candidates who blew the doors off their fields of opponents when it came to their qualifications and experience. Didn’t matter.

Campaigns are not straight lines. Merit doesn’t always win the day. As Harold Washington used to say: “Politics ain’t beanbag.” They’re also not always fair.

Watch the candidates with the magic. When it comes to presidential races in the modern age, they are the ones who usually end up in the Oval.