Personality and Politics

Andrew Romano has an interesting story in Newsweek that discusses the role and influence of personality on politics and electability, focusing on the candidacy of Mitt Romney.

Romano makes the point that while Romney, on paper, is a most attractive, even ideal candidate, both nature (in the form of personality disposition) and nurture (in the form of the Romney family’s experience with national politics at the time Romney’s father George was prominent) are working against him. The explanation of his difficulties in connecting with people may be found in personality psychology:

Political psychologist (and sometime Congressional candidate challenging Michelle Bachmann) Aubrey Immelman, who has developed a “Personal Electability Index,” unequivocally states that Romney will never win the Presidency, because modern voters tend to punish candidates who are introverted and conscientious – and while Romney isn’t particularly introverted (although wince-inducingly awkward in unscripted individual encounters), he has all the characteristics of the conscientious type: polite, proper, diligent, detail-oriented, and, above all, rational rather than emotional.

Immelman interestingly points out that these are all qualities that used to be valuable in political candidates well up to the mid-20th-century, so that men like Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and, yes, Calvin Coolidge connected with voters because (not in spite) of them. He argues that the TV era has placed a premium on the public persuasion aspects of politics; yet on TV, conscientious people come across as stiff and calculating, lacking the emotional appeal of their more extraverted and impulsive opponents. Notwithstanding either the qualities or lack thereof of Mitt Romney or the changes that have taken place in the nominating process, I feel it does not bode well for the system when the more shallow, marketing-oriented aspects of a candidate or president are valued more highly than their capacity for rational thought, and it is just one more reason why a “Coolidge for today” would have to act quite differently from the original in terms of both content and presentation.

As blog reader Jim Cooke points out, Romney and Coolidge share the distinction of having been Governors of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There are big distinctions between them, however – as Romano points out in his article, Romney has been on a losing streak in nearly all political contests he’s been in so far – Coolidge had an extraordinary string of political wins, capped, of course, by winning the Presidency. And Coolidge, in dealing with people high and low, always appeared to genuinely care for them, an impression that rightly or wrongly you do not get when observing Romney’s interactions.

Update: Additional (Mormon) take on this by Joanna Brooks at http://www.religiondispatches.org

2 thoughts on “Personality and Politics

  1. I haven’t studied Calvin Coolidge, but Robert E. Gilbert of Northeastern University consulted me on the psychology of depression for his book, “The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression” (2003).

    In his book, Bob Gilbert dispels the common view that Calvin Coolidge was a lazy, incompetent chief executive and provides compelling evidence that Coolidge was instead a talented and conscientious leader who was psychologically disabled for much of his presidency.

    • Thank you for your comment! I am of course aware of Dr. Gilbert’s work, although I must say that as a psychologist myself, I am not convinced of the depression theory. I’d much rather approach him from a trait personality viewpoint, and would certainly agree that he rated highly in introversion and conscientiousness. It would be interesting to assess his PEI, as he was -despite these traits- a highly successful vote-getter and politician throughout his career. You are likely aware of the Rubenzer/Faschingbauer volume on Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House (which I haven’t yet read) which I believe bases its assessments in part on the NEO-PI-R.

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