Countdown to the Election: Gore-Bush on The Human Factor

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - It's pretty much unanimous: Texas Gov. George W. Bush, say observers, is the winner of the all-important "likeability" or "human" factor in this year's presidential contest. The question remains, is likeability enough?

In the most recent Pew research poll, Gore trails Bush by 10 points in honesty and trustworthiness, the personal traits voters say they prize most this year. One in four swing voters mentions Vice President Al Gore's "tendency to flip-flop or exaggerate" or his defense of President Bill Clinton as their main doubt about him.

On a variety of other measures, such as "Which candidate would you want to invite to dinner?," "Which candidate would you want to have at a party?," and, "Which candidate would you want to be on a sports team with?," Bush wins by wide margins. (Gore, on the other hand, beats Bush in categories such as, "Which candidate would you want to go into business with?")

Political psychologist Aubrey Immelman, a professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, predicts that Bush will win the popular vote handily, by at least five percentage points, based on his reading of both candidates' personalities and how they affect voters' perceptions.

"It's clear that since the advent of mass media, the more extroverted candidate has always won presidential races," said Immelman. "Voters want someone who will maintain optimism in the face of events."

The effect of television on presidential races was made clear in the 1960 election, when Sen. John Kennedy was judged to have won the first televised presidential debates because he seemed cooler under the camera lights, as opposed to heavy-jowled, sweating Vice President, Richard Nixon.

Since that time, candidates have understood the need to present an appealing personal style in front of the camera, said John Franzen, a Democratic consultant who creates television commercials.

"Nowadays, candidates are all beginning to look the same in front of the camera, with the same gestures and verbal tics," said Franzen. "There is definitely a persona that works well on television, and television remains the number one source voters go to get the general impression of a candidate."

Yet is it all simply style and personality? Is there any necessary connection between a candidate's substance and his on-screen persona?

Immelman says observers too quickly dismiss personal style, because it does have value in getting to know how a candidate might react under pressure.

"We often feel there's a dichotomy between style and substance, and say that we should focus on substance. That's insufficient," he said. "Style gives us a clue as to the character and personality and how the president might act three or four years down the road. There's no way to know what sort of challenges will pop up in the future. But voters can get a sense of how those challenges will be met through someone's demeanor."

All the experts - even Democrat John Franzen - agree that Bush has consistently shown himself as a more likeable character, with an easygoing and affable personality as opposed to the more standoffish Gore.

"Bush has this aw-shucks quality that makes you forget some of the more grisly aspects of his policies," said Raphael Parry, a theater director and actor from Dallas, Tex., who works as an "image coach" for newscasters and TV personalities.

Parry, a Democrat, plans to vote for Gore, but admits that Bush's "likeability quotient" is high: "Gore always seems to try to hard to be loved, which can make people uncomfortable," he said.

The likeability quotient is even more pronounced in person, said Joe Pappalardo, a reporter for the Dallas Observer, an alternative Texas newspaper that has been a frequent critic of Bush.

"I was prepared not to like him when I first met him, but he sort of winks and nods at everyone in the room," Pappalardo said. "He's charming, though I don't think he's nice, unlike his wife, who is the sweetest woman in the world."

So in the end, is likeability and a pleasant personality enough to get you into the White House? Probably not, said Neil Postman, a sociologist and author of the seminal 1985 study of television and public life, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

"Television has conditioned us to weigh 'personality' over extended discussion of issues - the entertainment component of television is always present, and political professionals have both responded to this and helped to create it," said Postman. "Still there is some residual notion that positions on issues matter."