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Catch of the Day: 'Charisma' Exposed

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to Seth Masket for his advice to ignore “charisma” when assessing presidential candidates:

This sort of coverage proceeds from the very dubious assumption that charisma is an identifiable and measurable quality candidates may have. Like “leadership” (see Julia Azari’s piece on that) or “authenticity” (see what Richard Skinner and I had to say on that), charisma is one of those things that many political observers are convinced they can spot in a candidate and know when they see it, but turns out to be really hard to pin down.

Absolutely correct. I’d say it more strongly: There is no such thing as “charisma.” It’s just a way for people explain why a politician is successful when they can’t think of anything else. It turns out that lots of politicians whom we didn't typically think of as charismatic (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush) had it when they were doing well. Candidates "acquire" charisma when they win; it disappears when they lose. 

This isn't to say that election results depend solely on “fundamentals” such as economic performance. Candidates can matter (and in nomination politics they matter a lot). But we’re better off if we talk in terms of candidate skills -- who is better at “debating” or “giving a speech” or “working a rope line” or “working a room” rather than at something as ill-defined as "having charisma.” The more specific, and the more able we are to make an objective assessment, the better.

And then remember that skills in public presentation are only one set of political skills. The ability to understand issues, to negotiate and do many other things are important, too. It all depends on the context. Ben Carson could be a Hall of Fame-level speech maker, but it isn't going to matter if he tries to win a presidential nomination without conventional qualifications.

Yes, Barack Obama’s speech-making abilities were likely quite important in his successful nomination fight in 2008. But they can’t help him get legislation passed in Congress because speeches don't matter for that task

So forget "charisma": Nice catch!

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net