Tuesday, November 1, 2016


I argued there are four kinds of charisma (frontstage charisma, backstage charisma, success-magic, and reputational charisma); the more kinds you have, the more charismatic you are; but there are other kinds of political leadership and charisma does not always or even typically win elections.

Of the four kinds of charisma, the most easily visible are front-stage charisma as an inspiring public speaker, recruiting followers dedicated to a mission; and being known for a string of successes. 

As a measure of public appeal, look at the percentage of popular vote won by all major candidates for president from 1828 through 2012, from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama. I will leave aside, for the moment, the earlier elections from 1788 to 1824,  since these were essentially indirect elections by state legislatures.

Home run records and popular vote records

If we followed the changing record for presidents winning the highest percentage of voters-- in the same way we can follow the record for home runs in a season-- it would look like this:

Andrew Jackson 1828            56.0% of the vote
(since Jackson’s record wasn’t broken until 1904, I will insert in parentheses some other players who had very good years: )
(Andrew Jackson 1832  54.2%)
(Abraham Lincoln 1864  55.0%)
(Ulysses S. Grant 1872  55.6%)
Teddy Roosevelt 1904  56.4%-- new record
Warren G. Harding 1920 60.3%  -- new record
(Calvin Coolidge 1924  54.0%)
(Herbert Hoover 1928  58.2%)
(Franklin D. Roosevelt 1932 57.4%)
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1936  60.8%  -- new record
(FDR 1940   54.7%)
(Dwight D. Eisenhower 1952   55.2%)
(Eisenhower 1956    57.4%)
Lyndon Johnson 1964  61.1%  -- new record
(Richard M. Nixon  1972  60.7%)
(Ronald Reagan 1984   58.8%)

Since Reagan, no one has come close to the record. The highest have been G.H.W. Bush 1988 (53.4%) and Obama 2008 (52.9%). In three recent elections, no one broke 50% (a return to the fragmented politics of the mid-1800s). [Update November 2016: make that four recent elections.]

There are some surprises. No matter how great you are, charismatic, victorious, or likeable, you never get as many as 2 out of 3 people to vote for you, at least not in the United States.  In the 47 elections from 1828 to 2012, only 4 times someone cracked the ceiling of 60%. In fact, getting 54% of the vote was done only 16 times (out of 112 major candidates); it is like hitting 50 home runs or batting .350.

Is getting a high vote percentage a mark of charisma?  Some of the undoubtedly charismatic presidents were record-holders-- Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR--- and a couple of other charismatic leaders are high on the list (Lincoln hitting 55%; Reagan hitting 58.8%).  But Lyndon Johnson, who holds the current record at 61.1%, was not charismatic. And the president who smashed Teddy Roosevelt’s record at 60.3% was Warren G. Harding in 1920-- an astounding surprise, since Harding went on to become one of the most scandal-ridden and ineffective presidents. (In his previous career, it is true, he was regarded as a great orator.)  If Andrew Jackson is the Babe Ruth of American presidential sluggers, Harding was the Roger Maris-- a record with an asterisk. We all breathed a sign of relief when the home run record was smashed by a real slugger like Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds-- in politics, it was FDR, who proved it was no fluke by beating the 54% mark 3 times. (Jackson and Eisenhower was the only other persons to do it twice.)

And there were up-and-down politicians like Richard Nixon, who had one great year-- 60.7% in 1972-- but who lost other elections and won in 1968 with 43.4%.  Calvin Coolidge was the opposite of charismatic, but he is on the list (barely at the cut-off point of 54.0%).  Herbert Hoover was briefly second highest all-time (58.2% in 1928), then went on to take one of the worst defeats in his match-up against FDR. (He also did exactly the wrong things in dealing with the Great Depression of 1929.)

Charisma can help win elections, but it isn’t essential even for winning big. Some charismatic politicians either were defeated repeatedly (Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, each three times), or scraped into office (JFK and Woodrow Wilson never cracked 50% of the popular vote). 

Other things are involved in winning elections, notably who your opponent is, and whether something dramatically good or bad happens near election time. Nixon’s nearly record-breaking victory in 1972 happened against a little-known anti-war candidate (George McGovern). How Warren G. Harding dominated in 1920 seems mysterious, but it was apparently a backlash against Woodrow Wilson taking the U.S. into  World War I after promising not to; and then campaigning for a League of Nations and a nation-state for every ethnic group, which made him a charismatic figure in Europe during 1918-19, but played badly at home. Some popularity happens on the rebound or as a continuation of somebody else. Eisenhower’s popularity in 1952 and 1956 came as he succeeded a very unpopular president (Truman’s ratings had fallen to a record-low 22% in 1952; and Ike went on to end the Korean War deadlock that brought Truman down).  LBJ’s record-setting victory in 1964 came as he stepped into Kennedy’s shoes after the emotion-grabbing assassination, and proceeded  in a wave of legislation in 1964 to do everything JFK had promised but didn’t carry out. LBJ’s popularity ratings started high but slid downhill continuously during the Vietnam War, enough so that this political pro recognized it was time to bail out on running for re-election. 

Popularity ratings highs and lows

Since the 1940s, we have standardized popularity polls. Gallup polls ask the question of whether you approve of how the president is handling his job. This isn’t exactly a measure of charisma, since it doesn’t tap into that I’d-follow-him-anywhere quality of the symbolic leader.  Charisma is not a personality trait but an emotional relationship between a person who represents a principled ideal and a group of dedicated followers.

Presidential approval ratings respond to emotional events, but these peaks are very unstable. Here are the highest ratings:

90% approval for George W. Bush, mid-September 2001 (right after the 9/11 attack).
89% for George H.W. Bush, early March 1991 (right after victory in the 4-day Gulf War).
87% for Harry Truman, June 1945 (right after Victory in Europe -- V-E Day).
84% for Franklin Roosevelt, January 1942 (a month after Pearl Harbor and declaration of war against Japan).
83% for John F. Kennedy, May 1961 (just after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba).

These are called rally-round-the-flag ratings. The nation comes together around the presidential symbol immediately after a dramatic conflict event. It isn’t necessarily a victory; 3 of the top 5 ratings happened after we were attacked or defeated.

The peaks come from the emotional effect of outside events, not from the individual. George W. Bush’s rating was 51% in early September, just before the 9/11/01 attacks. Harry Truman’s rating dropped to the low 30s in 1946, bounced up and down in the mid-levels, and bottomed out at 22% in February 1952, during the bogged-down Korean War. George H.W. Bush’s ratings shot up from the mid-50s in late 1990 to 89% with the Gulf War, but dropped 60 points in the year-and-a-half that followed.  George W. Bush fell from 90% on a downward path to the low 30s in 2007 and 19% in the financial crash of October 2008.

FDR and JFK, on the other hand, maintained quite high ratings throughout their terms in office (JFK averaged 70%, FDR 63%). This is probably an effect of charisma, since these were charismatic speakers who inspired many idealistic followers. 

Other peaks for non-crisis presidents were 79% for Lyndon Johnson, immediately after taking over for Kennedy-- an overflow of JFK adulation in the period of national mourning. Dwight Eisenhower had 79% in December 1956, just after he had won his second term. Since Eisenhower was not a charismatic speaker or personality, this shows more of a good feeling or likeability rating. Ike’s average ratings in office were 65%, next highest to JFK’s 70.1%.

Approval ratings are a mixed measure, a melange of sudden events, likeability, and charisma. Is there anything else we can do with these polls? It would be nice if we had a series of questions across all the presidents asking, does this person represent an ideal you are dedicated to? Are you an  X-follower, equivalent to a follower of Jesus or Joan of Arc?

Look at popularity polls from the other direction: lowest popularity ratings. Including the ones we have already seen, the record lows are: George W. Bush 19% (October 2008),  Harry Truman, 22% (February 1952), Richard Nixon 24% (July-August 1974), Jimmy Carter 28% (June 1979), George H.W. Bush 29% (July 1992). Everybody had their ups and downs.

So who had the highest floor? JFK never dropped below 56%.  FDR’s floor, and Eisenhower’s, were next at 48%.  The only president whose floor never went below 50% was one of the three most charismatic presidents of modern times. (Since there were no polls of this sort before 1937, we don’t know about Teddy Roosevelt; but he did lose an election in 1912, coming in impressively second on a third party ticket.)

One conclusion is that charisma is never universal. Nearest to it are the momentary events that stir everyone into public rituals like putting out flags that proliferated during September-to-November 2001, but even these peaks never get above 83-90% of the population. Looking at it the other direction, even very unpopular moments for presidents leave about a quarter of the population supporting them. These are the hard core base that anyone successful on the national stage acquires. Charisma is what adds to that base and pulls one’s public reputation up to a solid majority, unshakeable even in bad times.

Politics is a process of conflict, a struggle between opposing factions. This is especially true in a democracy, where popular elections regularly mobilize people both to support and to reject. Democracy is a good breeding-grounds for charisma, but we should not expect it to produce unanimity.

And this is what we see in presidential elections. Getting 56% to 61% of the vote is as high as it gets.

All 44 U.S. presidents from 1788 to 2016

We can divide them in 3 groups:

I. the first 7 presidents from George Washington to Andrew Jackson: the founding network

II. the 18 presidents from 1837 to 1901: mostly mediocre except for Lincoln

III. the 19 presidents from 1901 to 2016, Teddy Roosevelt to Obama: intermittent charisma

I. The first 7 presidents are the famous names of American history: Washington-- Adams-- Jefferson-- Madison-- Monroe-- John Quincy Adams-- Jackson. But being famous is not the same as being charismatic. Of the 7, only 2 were charismatic: Jackson strongly so, Jefferson in a milder version.

George Washington was certainly revered.  He was elected twice, unopposed, by the electoral college that was not selected by popular vote. He did not have front-stage charisma: he was not famous for making speeches or stirring up emotional crowds. He had no success-magic; his record as a general was mainly a string of defeats and retreats; the key battles of the Revolutionary War were won by others. What Washington did was hold the Continental Army together through bad times until the British finally gave up their costly effort to hang onto the colonies. In the chaos of the loose Confederation, Washington led the movement for a Constitutional Convention, presided over it, and saw it through-- with the assistance of a strong team, most of whom also became presidents. 

Personally, he was known for great dignity and dedication. Did this amount to back-stage charisma? He impressed people in personal contact, although he did not always get his way, as in asking the Continental Congress for money. His reputation grew in the period of constitution-making, and he became an icon, his picture in every patriotic home. Score Washington un-charismatic on most counts-- demonstrating that charisma is not the only way to become an icon.

John Adams was more of a political organizer, on the northern end of the Massachusetts/Virginia coalition that made the new nation. He negotiated peace with Britain in 1782 and served as a key diplomat. Un-charismatic, but an important coalition-maker rewarded as Washington’s vice president and successor.

Thomas Jefferson was the best-known of the Virginia politicians. He became known, not so much for speeches but for his writings criticizing British rule, which made him Virginia’s member on the Committee of Correspondence organizing the colonies into revolt. His eloquence got him chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. He was minister to France, America’s most important ally, and Washington’s secretary of state. Jefferson was among the first to see the new direction of politics, resigning from the cabinet to oppose Hamilton’s policies, then running against John Adams with a new Democratic-Republican party. Jefferson led the emergence of political parties, creating the first nation-wide network to campaign for electoral votes. This made him widely popular, not just as a hero of the Revolution, but by actively stirring up public support. He was famed as the spokesman for decentralized democracy and for the Louisiana Purchase, the first big territorial expansion of the U.S. and a result of his diplomatic experience. Jefferson’s charismatic reputation came less from swaying crowds than from circulating written ideology, from a new style of political organizing, and spectacular diplomatic successes.

James Madison was a political negotiator and coalition-builder. Agreeing with Washington on the need for a stronger union than the disastrous Articles of Confederation, Madison’s plan became the basis for discussion at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He campaigned for it by writing pamphlets-- the main form of political communication at the time. The Federalist papers were an act of coalition, written by Madison together with Hamilton and John Jay, even though they would become political enemies in the new government. A member of Jefferson’s political team, he became his secretary of state and successor, winning re-election even though the War of 1812 was going badly at the time. 

James Monroe was primarily a diplomat and loyal team member. An officer in Washington’s army, Monroe learned law as an aide to Jefferson, then followed him as minister to France, and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. He became Madison’s secretary of state and secretary of war. After belated victory against the British in 1815, Monroe won the elections of 1816 and 1820 with virtually no opposition, the opposing Federalist party (which was anti-France and pro-British) having collapsed. His most famous achievement, the “Monroe Doctrine,” was actually formulated by his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. It made a principle out of U.S. success in keeping European states out of the continent, extending the project to Latin America where a series of revolts against Spain were breaking out as the Napoleonic wars disrupted distant colonial rulers. (Monroe took advantage by purchasing Florida from Spain in 1819.) Jefferson and his successors, although militarily weak, played on the advantages of their French alliance to expand territorially; meanwhile settlers and Indian-fighters were moving west anyway. The whole team became cloaked in an aura of national success.

John Quincy Adams was a lifelong diplomat. He accompanied his father on European missions in the 1780s; and served every president as minister to European states. As Madison’s secretary of state, Adams purchased Florida and improved relations with Britain.  Following the usual succession, Adams ran for president in 1824, and was defeated by Andrew Jackson in the popular vote; but since no one had a majority of the electoral college, the election was thrown in the House of Representatives, where political deals made Adams president. Regarding himself as old-school gentleman above politics, Adams made no effort to deal with Congress or to dispense patronage, and was overwhelmingly defeated by Jackson in 1828. John Quincy Adams worked quietly behind the scenes and was uncharismatic in every respect. He considered himself a failure as president.

Andrew Jackson was the first really charismatic American politician. A long-time frontiersman and Indian fighter, he became famous by defeating the British in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans. His new form of party politics was like Jefferson on steroids. He brought class conflict out into the open, campaigning as the people’s choice against the rich elites of the East. The 1828 election was the end of the founding network that had handed on the torch of office for 40 years. 

It also was a transition to a new style of campaigning. By 1840 it consisted of marches festooned with banners, wagons with brass bands (“bandwagons”), slogans endlessly repeated, the whole baby-kissing ritual that has endured down through the television era. Jackson had frontstage charisma that his predecessors lacked, in part because electioneering was becoming a big noisy public ritual. Combine this with a contentious ideology, and the ingredients were there for a president expected to turn things upside down. This Jackson did, above all by instituting an all-out spoils system for federal offices. This too enhanced political enthusiasm and Jackson’s reputation as a man of the people rather than the established elite.

Bottom line on the founding network: they were uncharismatic because they didn’t need to be. They got power by circulating writings among the high-literate class and building the country by skilled diplomacy. The new electioneering style came in with the prestige of wider democracy, which also set off a demand to manufacture charisma and hero-worship. With paradoxical results, as we shall see.

II. The 18 presidents from 1837 to 1901 are remarkable for lack of charisma.

From Van Buren to McKinley, there is only one strongly charismatic president, Abraham Lincoln. Only 3 ever won two consecutive terms (Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley--the latter two distinctly uncharismatic). Two died in office of natural causes; 3 were assassinated; 4 were not even renominated by their own party; another 2 were defeated for re-election; 4 declined to run again, declaring themselves exhausted or disillusioned with the office. In other words, 15 out of 18 could not generate enough popularity or success to keep on going.

Leaving Lincoln aside, few of the rest had any kind of charisma. Five presidents (William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Hayes, Garfield) were former generals, nominated as war heroes rising above divisive political issues; none did well in office. Grant’s administrations were full of corruption scandals, though he won reelection on the prestige of his Civil War victories; but even as a general, Grant was quietly persistent rather than charismatic.

Only 3 presidents had frontstage charisma, in the form of great speech-making. Lincoln, of course, but the rest of the list is surprising. James Polk was known as a star orator in Tennessee politics, an avid follower of Andrew Jackson, whose seat he occupied in Congress. He attempted to evade the increasingly divisive slavery issue by a platform of national expansion. Polk bluffed a war with Britain to settle claims to the Oregon territory, then invaded Mexico to acquire the rest of the continent all the way to California. Despite his success, the Mexican War was opposed by principled northerners, and a split among Polk’s own Democrats over slavery left him so exhausted that he died 3 months after leaving office at the age of 54.

Andrew Johnson has the historical reputation as one of the worst presidents, as the first to be impeached (although acquitted). In fact, Johnson was unusually courageous. He was the only one of 22 southern senators who refused to leave the Union, whereupon he was almost lynched by outraged Virginians. Lincoln gave him an administrative job and added him to the ticket in 1864, as a gesture of reconciliation towards the South. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson attempted to continue Lincoln’s policy of leniency, but he was sharply attacked by the Republican majority in Congress who wanted a punitive reconstruction. Early in his career, Johnson had been another Jacksonian populist, known as a fiery stump speaker. Having both charisma and courage of his principles did not save him from ignominious failure; in fact his courage contributed to it, since he refused to maneuver politically, and he lacked the key requisite of charismatic leadership, an admiring audience.

Cleveland, who won two terms separated by a defeat (followed by winning the rematch), had the reputation as a reformer, taking on the corrupt Tammany Hall machine in New York, then pushing for civil service reform at the Federal level. This was obviously a political opportunity, since so many administrations had gone through scandal, and presidents found themselves besieged by office-seekers who sometimes shot them when disappointed. He was one of the few presidents to ride out a sex scandal, admitting to fathering an illegitimate child, and then beating the opponent who made the charge-- Blaine, equally tarred with the reputation as a corrupt machine politician. Defeated for office in the 1888 election, Cleveland declared there was “no happier man in the United States.”

The most charismatic speaker of the entire period ran for president three times and lost all of them: William Jennings Bryan. Known as the silver-tongued orator of the prairie, Bryan was defeated twice by McKinley over banking interests versus cheap money for farmers. McKinley had strong establishment and machine politics backing, and projected an image of dignified respectability that prevailed over the tub-thumping of Bryan’s raucous campaigns.

Putting it all together, frontstage charisma paid off in political success for only two: Lincoln and Polk. Both paid the price; Polk retired exhausted from political infighting; Lincoln was assassinated.

What brought them down is emblematic of the entire period. There were too many contentious issues and deep-rooted factions: class conflict, banking issues, slavery, territorial expansion, the spoils system. That is why so many presidential candidates were compromise candidates nominated after lengthy convention balloting, or were disowned by their own party. A charismatic speaker on matters of principle might seize the public imagination of one segment, but could rarely win the presidency or carry out his program when in office. Inability to generate really sweeping charisma was built into the divisive structure.

Lincoln, who had great skills as a negotiator and coalition-builder, to go along with his oratory, was alone in coming out of it with a towering reputation. His martyrdom helped. In fact, we can date the moment when Lincoln became adulated by huge numbers of people: late April 1865. His body was taken home from Washington to be buried in Springfield, Illinois. It was a distance of 700 miles, but the train route covered 1700, snaking back and forth so that millions of people could stand by the tracks to witness the procession. It took 13 days. It was probably the biggest funeral ritual ever, and had all the successful ingredients: people assembled, united in focusing their attention on one thing, welling up with one common emotion intensified by each other. The result was turning a man into a symbol, a sacred object representing the solidarity of the nation.

III. The 19 presidents from 1901 to 2016. This is the era of statistics and surveys, and we have already seen its high and low points. 

Three presidents were charismatic speakers and public heroes (Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy), although only two had a record of successes; JFK’s program was largely carried out by his uncharismatic successor, Lyndon Johnson. Eisenhower, although uncharismatic, was unusually popular. Reagan, quite successful in his program (though correspondingly disliked by the ideological opposition), also was near the peak in voter support, although his popularity floor was lower than the others. Obama, known as a charismatic speaker, was an ineffective politician. His peak popularity rating (not unusually high at 69%) was just after his inauguration in 2009. His floor was a mediocre 37%, and his average approval 47% (a figure beaten by 10 of the last 13 presidents).

Overall, 6 of 29 modern elections were won by strongly charismatic leaders (Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK); another 4 elections were won by well-liked but uncharismatic figures, Eisenhower and Reagan.  About 80% of the time, an uncharismatic person wins the presidency.

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In addition to the standard sources, see:

On the struggle to expand the voting franchise in the U.S. from the 1780s to the 1840s:
Chilton Williamson, 1960. American Suffrage from Property to Democracy.

On the creation of political parties in the Jefferson era:
John Levi Martin, 2008. Social Structures. Chapter 8, “From pyramid to party.”

On the dynamics of political scandals:
Ari Adut, 2008. On Scandal.

On flags and other rituals of public support after the 9/11/01 attack:
Randall Collins, 2004. “Rituals of solidarity and security in the wake of terrorist attack.” Sociological Theory 22: 53-87.