California voters will be besieged with public opinion polls between now and the June 7 presidential primary and the Nov. 8 general election. But the only one to take seriously asks: “Who would you rather have a beer with?” Because likeability almost always determines who wins.
I ruefully concluded as much in a 2000 column predicting that while a clearly unqualified Texas Gov. George W. Bush could not carry California, he would probably become the nation’s 43rd president.
Bush had just charmed his way through a supportive editorial board meeting at the San Diego Union-Tribune, exuding a former fraternity president’s easy manner that was a stark contrast to Vice President Al Gore’s stiffness. It mattered little to many voters that Bush didn’t seem all that bright; Gore struck them as that smarmy student who routinely raised his hand as class ended to remind the teacher to assign tomorrow’s homework.
I had challenged Bush’s chances of winning the California primary, noting that he was on the wrong side of three issues that mattered to state voters: guns, abortion and the environment. He responded with the relative ease of a frat boy flipping the ash off his cigarette. His glib replies to several other questions suggested an abiding insouciance.
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As the session ended and I started for the door to avoid the line forming toward him for photos and face time, he caught my eye with a wry expression. Rather than slip away without the requisite courtesy, I reluctantly awaited my turn and surprised him with a question about Nolan Ryan’s heart condition. A baseball buff, Bush suddenly became animated, and we “bonded” for several minutes about the national pastime.
W was seen as the good ol’ boy; Gore the grind. What should have been an easy win for the Democratic candidate riding the wave of peace and prosperity became a contested election sadly decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy prevailed in large part against unlikeable opponents. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were master communicators who connected viscerally with voters in a way that Hillary Clinton cannot. Denied the nomination in 2008 by a far more likeable Barack Obama, she’s still plagued by chronic negative character perceptions. One wag likened her charismatic husband to a Hall of Fame hitter wincing as she swings and misses on the campaign trail.
Once she sheds the Bernie Sanders’ stubborn challenge, Clinton’s electoral salvation should be the toxicity of Donald Trump. This repellant presumptive GOP nominee is so reviled by the general public that an increasingly frantic Republican Party is praying for Divine intervention before the July convention in Cleveland. Although Ted Cruz’s exit eased some of the party’s pain, Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s departure dims any hope of being that savior.
Clinton’s intelligence, toughness and political experience certainly qualify her for the presidency. But her road to the White House will be far rougher than her husband’s or Bush’s because she’s being held to a far different personal standard by voters. As JFK famously said: “Life is unfair.”
It was bad enough that Bush made it to the White House; four years later he won re-election despite being demonstrably beyond his depth as commander in chief. Then again, he had the good fortune to run against yet another stiff, Sen. John Kerry.
A Clinton-Trump presidential contest will be corrosive because neither candidate is charming, let alone very likeable. Which is why pollsters may want to forgo “beer” as the beverage of choice in their question to voters and substitute “stiff drink” – because we are going to need one.
Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.