By Debbie Siegelbaum - 10/18/11 12:05 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) made sure to add mustard and let her husband, Marcus, take the first bite of her corn dog at the Iowa State Fair this August.
It wasn’t just a simple bite for the GOP presidential hopeful, however. The media quickly ate up images of the congresswoman munching on fair food on the eve of the Ames Straw Poll.
According to Dennis Johnson, a political science professor at George Washington University, humanizing moments like these are par for the course in politics, especially as the presidential election heats up.
But the author of Campaigning for President 2008 added, “In modern campaigning, everything is staged.” Even eating a corn dog.
“For most voters, they don’t really have a grasp on policy or how people voted, or even what they stand for,” Johnson said. Instead, “It’s that connection of, do I trust this person? Does he seem like he’s competent? Is he going to look out for the interests of me and my family?”
And courting voters’ hearts is far from a modern phenomenon, he added.
“You can go back to times of seeing Calvin Coolidge wearing a big Indian war bonnet and looking really stupid,” Johnson said with a chuckle. But “with Jimmy Carter, when he ran in 1976, having a plaid shirt on — a work shirt, and … sort of standing up against the railings on his farm — that’s sort of the beginning of moving away from guys in suits to a more humanizing type of thing.”
Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush would later make effective use of this everyman-on-the-ranch strategy, he said.
According to fellow GWU public policy Professor William Adams, it’s just one of many humanizing strategies political campaigns use to make their candidates more relatable.
Adams puts such strategies into three categories: kids, challenges and charm.
“The old cliché of politicians kissing babies is there for a reason,” he said. “It symbolizes a politician that’s human, that cares, that’s loving, that’s nurturing. And having a family seems emblematic of that nurturing kind of politician.”
Challenges include highlighting a candidate’s tough or humble histories — “the notion of having some kind of personal narrative that suggests they’ve overcome some struggles,” Adams said.
Examples include Carter coming from a poor rural upbringing, and Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) history as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Last, Adams said, is “the charm offensive,” in which humor and empathy demonstrate that the candidate is a good person.
These humanizing moments are not only helpful, but necessary if candidates want to make it to the Oval Office.
“The president is both the head of government and the head of state, and we integrate those roles,” Adams said. “Americans want to like their president, not just respect their president … Humans are both heart and head, and we want that emotional response as well as the intellectual response.”
For Oscar Ramirez, a principal at the Podesta Group lobbying firm, “the endgame is making them easier to vote for.”
The former John Kerry and Barack Obama campaign staffer said few humanizing moments are spontaneous, and when it comes to national presidential campaigns, “You’re trying to script everything as much as you can.
“You need to find ways to try to get rid of stereotypes that voters might have about a candidate, and these staged events are one way to do that,” Ramirez said. “You’re trying to reach a part of the electorate that is maybe more difficult to reach, so you have to find creative ways to make that part of the electorate feel comfortable with you.”
Mark Penn, a chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and the CEO of public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller, estimates that roughly 80 percent of all humanizing moments during a campaign are planned.
“I think today every campaign looks to have their quote-unquote more human moments,” he said. “Obviously, the connection that a candidate makes with people is critical to their success.”
But there can be a danger in going too far, experts warned.
Ramirez recalled an incident in the 2004 presidential race in which Sen. Kerry (D-Mass.) went duck hunting to counteract allegations that he was not Second Amendment-friendly.
Kerry dressed in camouflage and bagged a bird, but photos of a campaign staffer carrying the trophy ended up creating a media backlash.
“That kind of backfired a little bit on us,” he said.
Ramirez advised that when going for likability, it’s crucial to stay in a candidate’s comfort zone, or else campaigns risk appearing inauthentic.
“Make sure that if you’re trying to make your candidate into a real person, to make sure that person comes across as authentic, and that what you do doesn’t reinforce the public’s initial suspicions about a candidate not being real enough,” he cautioned.
“The moments that are inauthentic and are clearly staged and are supposed to overcome a weakness can instead do the opposite and play into the weakness,” Penn echoed.
The campaign veteran cited the Al and Tipper Gore kiss during the 2000 Democratic National Convention as one such example.
“That was probably overdone at the end of the day,” Penn said. “You have to be careful if you overdo it.”
Presidential hopefuls within the GOP aren’t the only ones who have to avoid looking inauthentic. In September, Michelle Obama received press when she was photographed dressed down, shopping at a Virginia Target.
The usually well-heeled first lady was praised for the outing — one relatable to so many Americans. But rumors later swirled that The Associated Press had been tipped off to the trip beforehand, calling into question whether it was just as staged as the corn-dog moments earlier in the summer.
Voters also run the risk of being burned if they focus too much on candidate likability, Adams said.
“In a democracy, you already have to worry that charm will trump credentials and will trump wisdom,” he said. “It’s probably amazing that we don’t have more people who are sort of automatons, scripted, that are spectacularly articulate and just look like they have been cast in Hollywood.”
As experts look across the 2012 battleground, there is a consensus that such humanizing moments are not only here to stay, but will be on the rise as Election Day approaches.
Asked what types of humanizing events voters can expect over the next year, Johnson said, “You’re always going to have barbecues, you’re always going to have candidates with pierogis stuck [to] their face.”
But candidates must walk a fine line of speaking on the issues and courting the American people.
“Be careful not to try to overdo it and maybe have some event that backfires, but show that you do understand people’s problems, and that’s why you’re fighting for this job,” Penn advised.