The 2016 Election Could Be a Popularity Contest Between Two Introverts

Introverted presidential candidates tend to be passionate and policy-driven, but also struggle with being awkward and prone to needing to redefine themselves.

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 18: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks to guests at a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on February 18, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Bush delivered his first major foreign policy speech at the event as he continues to test the waters for a potential run for president in 2016.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In January, Jeb Bush told a crowd of auto dealers in San Francisco that one thing most people don’t know about him is that he’s an introvert. “Introverts, actually, they’re grinders,” he said. “They identify a problem, by and large, and then they overcome it.” 

Adam C. Smith, the politics editor at the Tampa Bay Times, said in an interview that Floridians used different words to describe Bush’s temperament. “I think arrogant is a word a lot of people in Florida have used for Jeb,” Smith said. “Aloof, arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway was often how Jeb was perceived, even by people that admired him.” 

Recently, presidential politics has been dominated by introverts, aka people sometimes described generously as thoughtful, passionate, and measured, but more often equated with being arrogant, aloof, reserved, secretive, and even misanthropic. 

Dozens of stories have been written about President Obama, the loner president who’d rather spend a Saturday night at home with his family than schmoozing politicians and donors at a fancy party. Mitt Romney was known for being both robotic and incredibly awkward when he attempted small talk. And Hillary Clinton is often called “the most famous person nobody knows,” especially by her allies, but also private and overly secretive. 

Since his San Francisco speech, “introvert” has become Bush's buzzword (New York magazine has a list of Bush-as-introvert characterizations), and that might be the best-case scenario for a presidential candidate who isn’t naturally a people person.

“He’s kind of conditioning expectations there and I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before,” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said during an interview. “I think he’s also signaling, ‘Don’t expect me to be the most gregarious person who’s ever run for president.’” Rauch, an introvert, is also a contributing editor at National Journal and the Atlantic, where he published his 2003 essay “Caring for Your Introvert.”

Introverts on the trail

There’s a strong case to be made against trying to psychoanalyze presidential candidates, but the personality traits gleaned by the media—however fair the assessment may be—shape the narratives around them. 

Smith, who has been following Bush’s role in Florida politics since his 1998 gubernatorial re-election bid, said the former governor got along with the press reasonably well because he was willing to engage them and throw out big ideas. But he can also be impatient when faced with questions he doesn’t like.

“I keep saying this to people—at some point there’s going to be some reporter in Boston or Des Moines, or there’s going to be a camera on Jeb, and they’re going to ask him a question that he thinks is a jerky question and he’s going to be really pissy about it, and he’s going to not look good on TV,” he said. “He’s smart, he’s substantive, but he’s also impatient and capable of looking like a jerk if he feels somebody’s being shallow, or asking him a psychobabble question or something. That moment’s going to happen, I’m sure of it.”

One of the biggest regrets of many Mitt Romney supporters was that the public saw him as a robot, and never got to know the real man. “What’s really hard for [introverts] is connecting at the level of small talk and socializing,” Rauch said. “That is water torture for us. And Romney was, of course, famous for being bad at that. He’d say these goofy things. That’s a characteristic of being an introvert.” Romney’s awkwardness was a running joke during the election, inspiring headlines like:

  • Washington Post: “The best awkward Mitt Romney quotes”
  • The Atlantic: “The Socially Awkward yet Underrated Mitt Romney”
  • BuzzFeed: “The Internet Reacts To Romney Awkwardly Shaking Hands With Obama In White House”
  • The Huffington Post: “WATCH: Mitt Romney’s Awkward 1994 Interview With Teen”

But, Rauch added, “people who knew him in small sessions were also blown away by how intelligent and warm he was, and that did not transmit in larger groups.”

While Bush is relatively unknown, Clinton and the criticisms often leveled against her are common knowledge. She hasn’t publicly called herself an introvert, but accounts from those who know her outline similar qualities. When Clinton had to attend the kind of first lady events where children share their arts and crafts projects, people who knew her said she hard time, Rauch said. “That kind of thing is hard for an introvert,” he said. “And she was not particularly good, I was told, at hiding the fact that that was hard for her. And so people tended to think she was aloof and arrogant.”

In December 2007—months into Clinton’s campaign against Obama for the Democratic nomination—Mark Leibovich at the New York Times used a scene from Diane Blair’s funeral to show how unshakeable her reserve is. Clinton didn’t shed a tear while eulogizing her late friend, but Bill Clinton did. “It was left to Bill Clinton to bring the service to its emotional peak,” Leibovich wrote. He also gave us a synopsis of Clinton that rings true six years later:  

Aides often describe her as “the most famous person nobody knows,” a conceit that both condemns those who have mischaracterized Mrs. Clinton and acknowledges how inscrutable she can be.

Indeed, Mrs. Clinton is guarded by nature, friends say, a fundamentally “private person” despite her hyper-public profile. She has always been easier for many people to follow than to know, and people around her tend to speak of her in tones of distant awe, suggesting that they are more acolytes than friends.

Leibovich goes on to describe how part of that reserve may have come from years of bracing against scandals, leaks, and betrayals, but also nature. “Bill genuinely likes being with people,” Nancy Pietrafesa, one of Hillary Clinton’s classmates at Wellesley College, told the Times. “Hillary does not.”

Like many professional women, Clinton has spent years trying to manage traditional gender roles while also being a feminist. But, like Romney, she has also worked hard to make herself seem softer in an effort to show the country her more authentic, human side. During her 2000 Senate campaign, she released an 18-minute video “offering a complex portrait of her as a woman, a lawyer, and a mother,” according to the Times:

The video, created by the Hollywood producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, presented some fresh images of Mrs. Clinton, wearing a soft pink sweater and simple pearl necklace and boasting at one point, “Well, I make a mean tossed salad and a great omelet.” Later, she laments, “I can’t sing or carry a tune at all.”

Even in the '90s, there was a struggle between the more domestic version the White House needed Clinton to be and how she came off. In 1995, the Philadelphia Inquirer wondered if the Clinton they saw donating a dress to a first lady exhibit “the same Hillary Clinton who dazzled Capitol Hill in 1993 by testifying flawlessly on health-care reform without notes?” The article noted that after she was chastised for saying she could have stayed at home and baked cookies during the 1992 campaign, she ended up passing out cookies at the Democratic National Convention. 

Obama was less awkward than Romney, and less well known that Clinton—he’s also a talented public speaker , something even his fiercest critics acknowledge. “We are actually often very good at sort of large public speeches. That’s Obama’s great strength and it was Reagan’s great strength,” Rauch said. “We’re good at performing, it’s what we’ve been doing our whole lives.”

But of all the introverts of the last few elections, Clinton and Bush may be the most alike—smart and substantive, but with reputations for aloofness and the memories of the more social members of their dynasties hanging around their necks.