Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics
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Sure, Edwards is Congenial, But How About Electable?
January 24, 2008
Last week, Republican Mitt Romney in effect made a “last stand” in the state of his birth, Michigan — and won, keeping alive his presidential ambitions. On Saturday, native South Carolinian John Edwards faces even more daunting odds. With polls showing Edwards a distant third behind Democratic front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, Saturday’s primary seems more “moment of truth” than “last stand” for Edwards.
Yet, Edwards has retained his unshakable optimism, despite feeling the pinch of dwindling funds and seeing the writing on the wall that the bid for the Democratic nomination has all but become a two-way race between Clinton and Obama.
How can we account for Edwards’s remarkable resilience against seemingly insurmountable odds and what kind of president would he be if, defying all odds, he succeeded in his quest for the White House?
The answer lies in Edwards’s personality: enduring personal traits and attributes that remain relatively constant over time and drive a person’s behavior across a broad range of situations, thus serving as a reliable predictor of a candidate’s job performance in office.
To obtain a clear psychological portrait of Edwards, we constructed a personality profile of the former senator from North Carolina, employing a standard assessment procedure developed in the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.
The profile revealed that Edwards — as one would expect of a successful trial lawyer and two-time candidate for president — is quite ambitious, confident, and conscientious. However, for Edwards, those are secondary personality traits. It turns out his most prominent personal attribute is an outgoing, accommodating tendency, one of the most optimistic personality types.
An optimistic, outgoing orientation is a strong plus in presidential campaigns. Time and again since the first televised presidential debates in 1960 — with the notable exceptions of Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and Gerald Ford in 1976 — the more outgoing presidential candidate routinely has emerged the winner.
His outgoing, extraverted nature does not distinguish Edwards from Obama, who is similarly congenial, but it does contrast him with Clinton, whose lack of outgoing qualities undoubtedly contributes to the high negatives in public perceptions of her likability.
Edwards’s accommodating tendency, in contrast to his extraversion, does not contribute to his electability. Although accommodating, friendly, cooperative personalities are generally well liked, they do not exude the kind of strength that American voters value in presidential candidates.
In presidential campaigns, most voters favor the opposite personality orientation: dominance. In that regard, the cards are stacked in Clinton’s favor — or Giuliani and McCain on the Republican side.
Accommodating personalities can reconcile differences and concede when necessary. Cordiality and a willingness to compromise characterize their interpersonal relationships — positive character qualities all, on the face of it. But evidently, American voters either do not prize those virtues in their presidents or, perhaps, those qualities simply don’t play well in the cutthroat world of presidential campaign politics.
How would he govern?
The Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, in collaboration with McGill University political scientist Blema Steinberg, developed a model that maps out the links between personality and executive leadership style.
Accommodating, congenial leaders like Edwards are more concerned with pragmatism than with power. They tend to be less ideological than highly dominant leaders like Hillary Clinton, with the notable exception that they typically resonate to liberal notions of fairness, equality, and nurturing the neediest members of society.
For example, at the Jan. 15 Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, when moderator Tim Russert asked Edwards about his greatness weakness, he responded, “I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me. … I mean … dignity and self-respect is at issue. And I feel that in a really personal way and in a very emotional way.”
Because they are predisposed to see government as a community of interlocking parts with shared interests in containing conflict and enhancing common values, accommodating leaders invest considerable energy in maintaining good relations and empowering members of their advisory circle. They have a more relaxed, laissez-faire leadership style than other personality types.
Accommodating leaders tend to be highly interactive with aides, assistants, and staff, treating subordinates in a collegial, solicitous manner rather than being overly demanding or exploitative. As managers, accommodating leaders like Edwards are more likely to act as consensus builders or arbitrators across factional and party lines rather than as trench fighters for their personal policy positions.
Similarly, their dealings with Congress are likely to be relatively cooperative and harmonious, with a preference for remaining above the fray in heated, highly divisive debates. This orientation is also evident in their relations with the media, which tend to be quite cordial.
In a nation that has become increasingly divided in the decade since the Clinton impeachment saga and mired in bitter partisan rhetoric as a seemingly unending war drags on in a time economic uncertainty, the optimistic John Edwards — a compassionate, conciliatory man — may well be the right man at the right time for America.
But the harsh reality for Edwards is that those personal qualities, which most voters would admire in a fellow citizen, are roundly rejected in the realm of national leadership.
Could it be that in a nation where a critical mass would “rather fight than switch,” we get the leadership we deserve?
Note. A slightly revised version of this article was published as the "Your Turn" column "Qualities help, hurt Edwards" in the St. Cloud Times (p. 7B), Jan. 25, 2008.
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Last updated February 25, 2008