Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE is not just the first major candidate to announce a 2016 bid — he’s also the first to make serious moves in the likability primary.
The Texas Republican has been seeking to soften his sometimes rigid public persona throughout his rollout this week: talking about his family background during his campaign launch at Liberty University on Monday, being candidly photographed with his wife and daughters, and adding non-political TV shows to his post-announcement tour.
Cruz’s moves underline the extent to which likability among voters is crucial for presidential candidates in the modern age — and the degree to which it could be a problem for him specifically.
The importance of a personality to which voters can warm “cannot be overstated,” according to Hogan Gidley, a senior communications adviser to one of Cruz’s likely GOP rivals, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Policy wonks often assert that the media’s focus on personality is gratuitous. But Gidley is among many who beg to differ.
“It’s not superficial,” he insisted. “So much of politics boils down to: Do I know you? Do I trust you? Do I like you?”
Huckabee himself used his avuncular personality to his advantage back in 2008, finishing as the runner-up in the primary campaign. His later appearances on talk shows, including Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” helped broaden his appeal despite being far from the natural terrain of a fervent social conservative.
This cycle, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is already appealing to voters via a quirky social media presence that has seen him jab at Cruz and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, among others. Paul’s social media team at one point set up a spoof Pinterest page to tweak the former secretary of State, though the site took it down.
The personal characteristics of other potential GOP candidates are already being dissected. Is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just too volatile? Could Florida Sen. Marco Rubio be the man with the personal magnetism to draw new converts to the Republican ticket? Will Jeb Bush prove to have the everyman appeal of his older brother, George W. Bush, or will he exhibit something closer to the more staid approach of his father?
Earlier this month in National Review, conservative commentator Mona
Charen wrote that Rubio “has one more huge advantage as a candidate: likability. He has a sense of humor and can be self-deprecating. The conservative message he carries is wrapped in sincerity, uplift and warmth, not scowls and censure.”
For the moment, many would-be candidates are concentrating on visits to early-voting states, notably Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where retail politicking brings a dual set of opportunities and challenges.
“Voters can get up close and see these candidates, not just through the lens of media,” said veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “The way they comport themselves, whether they look someone in the eye, their handshake, the timbre of their voice: These are all things that matter.”
But, for the moment, it is Cruz who is trying to turn on the charm on a bigger scale.
He allowed the conservative news site Breitbart to take and publish photos of him relaxing with his wife, Heidi, and the couple’s daughters on the evening before his speech launching his candidacy.
A separate set of photos, taken during a rehearsal for the event, showed Cruz and his family practicing waving to the crowd and the senator kissing his wife.
Cruz made the rounds of the morning TV shows the day after the announcement. In a joint interview, his wife told NBC’s “Today” that her husband was someone “who tells the truth.”
Shortly before Cruz’s announcement, he had also ventured into late-night TV territory, making an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
The freshman senator even sought to poke some fun at himself — relating how he had read from parts of “Green Eggs and Ham” during his famous 2013 marathon speech, he laughed that, “I poll very well in the 3-to-6 demographic.”
The “Late Night” appearance was sometimes awkward, however — amounting to one more example of Cruz’s sometimes taut personality. A lengthy Washington Post profile earlier this week quoted an acquaintance recalling how Cruz, as a student, got into an apparently pointless argument with a sandwich-shop owner, among other oddities.
His tense relationship with GOP leaders and fellow senators also means that there are not many Republicans rushing to testify to Cruz’s warmth and charm.
“Part of his problem is not being likable to voters, but another part of it is not being likable enough to the people [within the party establishment] whose help you need to get a campaign off the ground,” said GOP consultant Dan Judy. “He is not well-liked by those people. A lot of those people like some Democratic senators more than they like him.”
Judy also pointed out, however, that the absence of natural charm is not necessarily fatal for a politician, and it’s not just a GOP issue.
Clinton, after all, has long struggled in this area, famously being dismissed with a “You’re likable enough, Hillary” comment by then-Sen. Barack Obama during their tumultuous 2008 primary campaign.
Despite that, Clinton is a clearer favorite to become her party’s standard-bearer this time around.
“Connecting with people has never been her strong suit,” Judy said. “You can get better — you can learn to plaster on a smile when you are shaking people’s hands. But, really, it’s something that you either have or you don’t.”
The emphasis on likability is not quite so recent a development as some people like to think.
Almost 30 years ago, incumbent Vice President George H.W. Bush overcame a gaping poll deficit against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, in part because the Massachusetts governor’s persona was that of a stiff academic.
After one debate, a Bush aide told the Los Angeles Times, “One advantage he has over Dukakis: It’s easier to show himself … just as a warmer person.”
The aide in question, the Times noted, was “Bush’s second son, Jeb.”