May the Best Candidate Win?

The Nate Silvering of election analysis—the endless and addictive parsing of exit polls and demographics and historical precedents and outliers and predictive models and Intrade odds—has made campaigns increasingly look, to politicos at least, more like science than art. But there is one “predictive model” that matters more than any other—and it’s entirely the province of unmeasurable, flesh-and-blood, gloriously subjective intangibles. It’s also refreshingly simple: In general elections, the best campaigner wins.

Think about it: When was the last time the superior campaigner of either party lost the presidency? Barack Obama out-talked, out-charmed, and out-disciplined John McCain by a country mile in 2008. George W. Bush, despite his oratorical handicaps, communicated more warmly and stayed on message more relentlessly (and repetitiously) than Al Gore or John Kerry. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were, of course, masterful on campaign stumps and television screens alike. George H.W. Bush had the great good fortune, in 1988, of facing not-ready-for-prime-time Michael Dukakis. You have to reach back almost four decades, to the Jimmy Carter victory over Gerald Ford in 1976, to find a contest in which the candidates were fairly matched in the seductive arts of wooing voters. The last time the better campaigner lost a presidential election was 1968—and even then, “happy warrior” Hubert Humphrey came amazingly close to overcoming the dark cloud of Vietnam and the crack-up of the Democratic Party and defeating Richard Nixon.

It hasn’t always been this way, of course. Before the mass-media age, unappealing candidates—William Howard Taft, anyone?—could prevail, and often did. But arguably since Roosevelt and certainly since Eisenhower, presidential nominees have been superstar celebrities. The reason that it matters so much which candidate voters would rather invite over for a barbecue or go to a baseball game with is because we virtually have to do just that. In the 24-hour news cycle, presidents’ voices and images are always with us. They’re part of our everyday lives.

Of course, it’s true that just as candidates matter, so do campaigns. Effective campaigns can make mediocre candidates—like Nixon and Bush II—more appealing.

None of which offers much hope for Romney in a contest with Obama, assuming he continues to grind his way to the Republican nomination. Even Ann Romney might have to concede that her husband is no match, either on the stump or on TV, for the easy charm and forceful eloquence of this president. And if Romney’s campaign staffers are wily enough to make him substantially better, they certainly haven’t shown it yet. Romney might kvetch about Obama’s star quality, as McCain did last time (remember that McCain ad likening Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears?), and try to use it against him. But if the last seven decades of political history are any indication, he’s going to have a devil of a time overcoming it.

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