April 17, 2007

The one of us factor: Will it matter in the '08 election?

I was a high-strung overachiever in high school. I lost student government elections in the eighth and ninth grades due to my nerdiness, which disconnected me from many students. My speeches might have been articulate and witty with a college audience, but they didn’t fly with the jocks and spray-tanned in-crowd who dominated votes. Nobody cared except for those who wanted to win the popularity contest and their cliques. Quality candidates barely stood a chance.

So I decided to spice up my otherwise “mature” speech. I read it in a perfect Scottish accent and threw in a few ridiculous lines, repeating my name along the way. Sure enough, the audience was in tears, and I pulled out a landslide victory. We all know that in high school elections, the driven and nerdy only succeed if they can present themselves as fun and approachable.

In this respect, presidential elections haven’t veered too far from high school. In recent years, there’s been a trend in how Americans elect presidents. With the exception of Al Gore’s winning the popular vote in 2000, the tendency seems to be to choose the candidate who’s down-home. We’ve been choosing commanders-in-chief who present a non-intellectual image, whether they’re actually intellectual or not. Consider some of the more recent elects. Jimmy Carter grew up on a peanut farm. The Gipper was an “actor” of the non–Marlon Brando variety. Bill Clinton, though brilliant and truly intellectual, started as a boy with a dream from a little town called Hope. And Bush II…well, need I even say anything there? What’s the lowest common denominator among these men? It’s not intelligence, it’s not even charisma (only some of them had those traits)—it’s the “one of us” factor.

There are two kinds of candidates who have this “one of us” factor: Those who project a casual image while truly being intellectual, and those who project a casual image and are truly non-intellectual. Our current president is of the latter—the dangerous—type. Bill Maher once told Larry King that President Bush “should have been the bartender at a 19th hole at a golf club. That was his calling in life. If his name had been George Bushler, that would be what he was doing. That’s what he’s capable of.…I’m sure he’s okay as a guy to have a drink with.” And it’s true. He’s just an average Joe who wound up in the White House. While this may mean he comes off as approachable and neighborly to many Americans, does it also mean he has what it takes to run the country? Is the most electable candidate necessarily the best?

But to say that intellectualism should be the stand-alone independent variable in the presidential race would be untrue to the principles of representative government of the people, by the people, and for the people. John Kerry had the intellectualism, but he simply did not appeal to many voters. People said he “looked French”—not American. The “one of us” factor did not shine through to voters, and sure enough, he lost that race.

Bill Clinton, however, was the ideal candidate. He combined the “one of us” factor with real intellectualism. He was relatable, laid-back, and liked a good doughnut now and then. Yet he was competent, well read, bright, articulate, and on-point. He was soulful—loves a quality movie, plays the sax, and knows his music. His multitasking abilities were a sign of his smarts: He’s been said to have often silently read a book during a busy meeting, then, fully aware of the discussion at hand, chime in with an intelligent, useful idea. This killer combination of a truly down-home nature with a keen mind not only renders a candidate electable but also proves that he is up to the enormous task of the presidency.

I watched the Kerry-Bush debate in 2004 with a group of U of C students. After the debate, most self-professed moderates in the crowd who had been unsure until that point said they were going with Kerry. More interestingly, the majority of people in the room thought Kerry’s smart comments in the debate meant he was definitely going to win. Unfortunately, a nerdy U of C crowd isn’t necessarily best at detecting a candidate’s chances, because we’ve assumed smarts alone are enough for the rest of the population. Plus, the “one of us” factor applied to U of C students when it came to Kerry, at least compared to Bush. But the U of C population is just a small demographic. And frankly, Kerry probably needed to try a Scottish accent with a speech or two.

While current candidates have strong capability, it’s unclear to me whether any is showing the “one of us” factor at this stage. Certainly Hillary and Barack have had casual conversations with people at eateries, spoken at Selma, AL churches, and by default have the “one of us” factor for the portion of the population that doesn’t consist of white males. But the “one of us” factor shouldn’t come only from race or gender, but from the individual’s personality and constitution. They’re both pretty intellectual, but will their intellectualism dominate their image as candidates? While they come off as much more approachable than Kerry, only the next few weeks and months will tell how well they connect with people. I am fairly confident, however, that in this race, no one is going to resort to affecting a Scottish accent.