2012 presidential field lacks charisma

The Republican presidential field may be lacking in charisma, but so is President Obama, political observers say.

Many of the GOP contenders are missing that special ability to connect with voters in a way that taps into their emotions — broadly and vaguely defined as charisma, Democratic and Republican strategists and historians say.

And a few observers argue Obama hasn't been on his charisma game since his own presidential campaign in 2008.

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The topic has garnered more attention now that the Republican presidential field is taking shape.

Some GOP insiders have complained the top-tier hopefuls just don't have the ability to connect with and inspire voters. And one of them will be the likely nominee against an incumbent who was known for that magical quality during the last campaign.

There are some Republican contenders who are seen as charismatic, but most of them are given a lesser chance of capturing the White House: candidates such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and businessman Herman Cain.

"Michele Bachmann can connect with audiences. Sarah Palin can connect with audiences," University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School of Communication Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson said. "They can deliver a decent speech and they can connect with that audience effectively."

She also cited former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as a good example of a Republican with charisma.

"Mike Huckabee was very charismatic. He managed to convey a sense of identification with audiences that led to audience responses that were very favorable, they were very immediate," she said. 

Huckabee took himself out the 2012 race earlier this month.

Northwestern University Professor Emeritus David Zarefsky, who specializes in American public discourse, says that Bachmann's and Palin's strength is their ability to create an emotional connection with voters.

"I think in every case it's the ability to make a deep emotional connection with a defined segment of the electorate," Zarefsky said. "They embody the Tea Party way of thinking probably more than anyone else."

While both women are well-known, are favorites of the conservative Tea Party movement and even do well in some polling, there is doubt they could beat Obama in the general election. Palin, Bachmann and Cain all poll well among GOP voters but, when it comes to a head-to-head match-up with the president, he beats them — sometimes by as much as double digits.

Candidates like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty are considered the top-tier contenders but don’t seem to inspire the same level of devotion among GOP voters.

"A guy like Pawlenty, he's probably going to have to show that he can energize people in addition to putting together a good campaign and having the stature," Democratic strategist Eric Adelstein said.

Jamieson said Romney isn't good at connecting with voters in large crowds, noting that Romney's speeches tend to feel forced like "he's working to deliver" them.

"I suspect Romney's strongest genre is in conference [rooms],” she said.

But she points out that lack of connection doesn’t mean a candidate will fail.

"The typical presidential candidate is not good with large crowds," she said. "I mean, we don't have many Ronald Reagans."

And with almost 18 months to go before the election, the charisma factor could easily change, possibly to the benefit of the Republican challengers.

"I would say Romney has the most potential to gain in charisma," Zarefsky said.

As for Obama, opinion varies on whether he's got charisma now. Jamieson said Obama hasn't shown the same sort of ability to captivate crowds since the 2008 presidential race.

"In the campaign, he had a message of uplift and change that was working against the ... widespread conception that the economy was in shambles and we were in wars that we didn't belong in," she said. "He doesn't have the advantage now of having the audience with him. He has to convince the audience now, because he's got a lot of dashed hopes."

But charisma isn't everything, observers say. Presidents can (and have) won without having that ability to connect with voters.

Republican strategist Rich Galen said charisma isn't what won Obama the White House in 2008.

"But I think no matter how cute he was, if people thought he was a crook, or they just didn't trust him to handle the reins of government, it wouldn't have mattered," Galen said.

Jamieson admits charisma is hard to define.

"It's an ill-defined concept," she said. "It's creating a connection with audiences in a way that increases the likelihood that they will embrace both the speaker and the record."

But she likened it to something similar to a romantic or religious encounter.

"You talk about being transported by eloquent speech," she said.