As much as people say they don’t look at the poll numbers, you can’t help but pay attention to them. It certainly kind of cuts you, and obviously if I’m going to be successful over the next year and a half, the poll numbers will have to catch up.
But I think that if you stick to doing the right thing, the poll numbers will catch up. In Minnesota, I had the first government shutdown in 150 years; my popularity ratings went from something like the low 50s to the mid-30s in a week. The sentiment among the chattering class was: “Let’s stick a fork in him. His career is over.” The following year, in 2006, I got reelected.
Popularity boils down to some basic things. No. 1: Do the right thing. No. 2: Be fair-minded in tone. No. 3: Be likable and treat people well. Over time, I’ve learned that people—even if they don’t necessarily agree with you—will cut you some slack and respect you as long as they feel you’re being fair-minded and thoughtful. The big motivation for me to run for President is to provide solutions, even if they’re unpopular. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time.
In the end, people don’t care so much about who has a better white paper on Sarbanes-Oxley reform as whom they would like to have a beer with. About 10 or 15 percent of the vote decides the election. I grew up in a family of Reagan Democrats, and we’d say: “I don’t always agree with Reagan, but I like him. He seems like a person we can trust.” I got reelected as a strong conservative in one of the most liberal states in the country, where you couldn’t just appeal to Republicans. This is the state of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone and Al Franken. You’ve got to be who you are and say what you believe, but with a tone people will respect.
Keep in mind that at this point the last time around, Hillary Clinton was leading Obama in the polls by 20 or 30 points. These polls bounce around. If you chase them, you’ll be like a bouncing ball with no compass. We live in a world of reality TV shows and soft entertainment that lights the lamp in terms of popularity but oftentimes just doesn’t mean anything. These are very serious times; anyone can quickly conclude that we’re in deep crap financially. Leadership is about doing the right thing. Then popularity will take care of itself. — As told to Diane Brady