Debating likeability

Like millions of other Americans, I’ll be watching the first of the presidential debates on television Thursday night. And like many of them, including Godfrey Sperling Jr., I’ll be looking for style as much as for substance.

Sperling, the venerable former bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitorwho virtually invented pack journalism with his long-running newsmaker breakfasts, reminded me of the importance of what I call the likeability factor at a Monitorb reakfast with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last Friday.

Sperling, who hosted more than 3,000 such group interviews for print reporters since 1966 before turning the job over to his successor, Dave Cook, two years ago, asked Pelosi how she thinks Sen. John KerryJohn KerryTwenty-four countries say global net-zero goal will fuel inequality Queen Elizabeth recognizes Kerry from video message: 'I saw you on the telly' Fossil fuel production must be cut in half to control global warming: study MORE will do in the debates with President Bush.

He recalled that he had covered the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in Chicago in 1960, which was the first to be televised nationally. It gave John Kennedy a tremendous boost because Richard Nixon looked gaunt and was sweating profusely, in contrast to the cool, elegant Kennedy. Those who listened on the radio thought Nixon won the debate, but television viewers gave Kennedy the edge.

“The overwhelming majority [of viewers] responded in terms of how the candidates looked and handled themselves rather than in terms of the issues that were argued about,” pollster Samuel Lubell reported at the time.

Sperling, who turned 89 last week, observed that Bush seems “much more likable than Kerry” and asked if that’s true, won’t that give Bush “a valuable edge going into the debates?”

Pelosi conceded “that the president is a likable fellow” but said she’s confident Kerry will pass the likeability test once voters have a chance to compare the two candidates side by side and see how they think on their feet and react to stress without the
distortions of campaign ads and spin doctors.

For Kerry’s sake, I hope she’s right. But I’m not sure I’d want to bet the mortgage on it.

This will be the 10th presidential election I have covered as a reporter or been involved in as a vice-presidential aide, and the more I study voter psychology, the more I’m convinced that voters will choose the person they find more appealing and are more comfortable with, as they have done in all but four elections since 1952.

This was true when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, when Kennedy defeated Nixon in 1960, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984, when George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988, when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill Clinton shares video update after release from hospital Biden, Democrats risk everything unless they follow the Clinton pivot (they won't) Giuliani picks Abe Lincoln filter for attack against McAuliffe MORE defeated Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, and when George W. Bush defeated Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreMcAuliffe on 2000 election: 'I wish the United States Supreme Court had let them finish counting the votes' All Democrats must compromise to pass economic plans, just like 1993 Amy Coney Barrett sullies the Supreme Court MORE in 2000.

The only exceptions were the Lyndon Johnson landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, Nixon’s narrow win over Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and overwhelming defeat of George McGovern in 1972, and Carter’s win over Gerald Ford in 1976.

In 1964, neither Johnson nor Goldwater was especially likable, but Johnson wore the assassinated Kennedy’s mantle and rode the momentum of the Great Society. In 1968, Humphrey was saddled with LBJ’s unpopular war. In 1972, McGovern’s hapless campaign, in which he was forced to dump his running mate, beat him, and in 1976, Ford was a victim of Nixon’s Watergate legacy and his own inept campaigning.

George W. Bush clearly comes across as more likable than Kerry. While voters may be ready to fire Bush, I don’t think they’re yet ready to hire Kerry, which is why these debates could seal his fate.

Albert Eisele is editor of The Hill.