The case against voting for charisma

Likeability, relatability, humor, wit, charm, good looks and a little disregard for convention have always helped candidates win elections. Policy positions, character and experience in government help, too.

But lately, the personality characteristics associated with charisma are seemingly more important to voters than a candidate’s experience or stance on issues.

Right now, in the run-up to the 2020 election, Democratic voters are very focused on electability. Charisma is a crucial consideration in discussions about who can beat Donald Trump.

The problem is, focusing on charisma is a terrible idea.

Charisma matters now more than ever for two reasons.

First, politicians are now packaging themselves as Instagram-ready personal brands. And second, people in more individualistic cultures value leaders’ charisma more, and America is becoming increasingly individualistic. This means that charisma, rather than performance, may play an increasing role in how leaders are evaluated.

This explains why commentators were so focused on Hillary Clinton’s lack of charisma, and why her weeds-y white papers couldn’t beat a few three-word slogans from a reality TV star.

As a scholar whose teaching and research addresses the ethics of leadership, I believe that following charisma is a mistake because charisma has very little to do with the things that voters should care about when choosing political leaders, like their character and ability to govern.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in New York, Nov. 9, 2016, where she conceded her defeat to Republican Donald Trump. AP/Matt Rourke

Charisma: Who benefits?

The first problem with charisma is the way that it disproportionately benefits some kinds of candidates and disadvantages others.

A substantial part of Beto O’Rourke’s appeal is his youthful capacity to stand on countertops and swear on TV.

Joe Biden is also betting on charisma, hoping that his “Uncle Joe” persona can match Trump’s own charisma with working-class whites.

On the other hand, a “boomer-level lack of charisma” is one of Elizabeth Warren’s biggest hurdles. And come to think of it, it’s also a hurdle for other women on the campaign trail: There’s Amy Klobuchar, who has been called “angry, harsh, and frankly abusive”; and Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been described as “a whole lot of blah.”

Meanwhile, Kamala Harris, who has been mocked for her warmth and connection with voters, evidently has the wrong kind of charisma for being taken seriously.

Research confirms that factors like a leaders’ appearance, race and gender matter a lot for perceptions of charisma.

Social scientists say men display more confidence in their leadership abilities, which reads as charisma. People view taller men as more charismatic than shorter men, and they do not view Asian men as being as charismatic as white men.

And while psychologists do sometimes find that female leaders are perceived as more charismatic than their male counterparts, the measures of charisma researchers use gives a false impression because they track things like perceived emotional intelligence rather than perceived leadership ability or overall likeability.

Also, studies of women and charisma often compare female leaders to male leaders at the same level, which may indicate that women must display these traits to a greater extent than their male counterparts in order to succeed, not that women are more generally perceived to be more charismatic.

Reevaluating magnetism’s importance

In light of the uneven way that perceived charisma benefits leaders, the journalist Rebecca Traister writes, “It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait” and proposes that “We should reevaluate magnetism’s importance.” Elsewhere, Traister calls out the emphasis on electability, which is related to charisma, as “a purported science that is actually a tool to reinforce bias.”