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Voodoo Punditry

Aubrey Immelman
Saint John’s University

May 4, 1999

On Fox News Channel’s "The O’Reilly Factor," on May 3, 1999 in a segment on Vice President Al Gore’s poor showing in the polls, Mary Ann Marsh defined Gore’s problem as essentially a case of people not knowing who Gore is as a person. Ostensibly, they know him only as vice president.

    At best, this is daft conjecture. How much better do voters know George W. Bush as a person? In fact, the conventional wisdom is that Bush should define himself as little as possible, given his strong standing in the polls. There is no reason to believe that people would like Al Gore any better if they felt they knew him as a person.

    There’s a lot of voodoo punditry in foundering explanations for Al Gore’s lackluster poll numbers. On March 17, 1999—also on "The O’Reilly Factor"—pollster John Zogby, in the following exchange with anchor Bill O'Reilly, attributed Gore’s poor showing to three factors, all of them of questionable validity. 

    Bill O’Reilly: "I’m kind of surprised that Mr. Gore is not performing that well [in the polls]. He’s not a man who alienates a lot of people by what he says—certainly a cautious man in his deliberations, in his speeches. Why do you think he’s not showing up well?

    John Zogby: "I think there’s three things at work here. One is, you know, somehow, some way, someone has to pay for what this country’s been through over the last few years. He [Gore] doesn’t have the finesse or the ability to rope-a-dope that his boss Bill Clinton does, and so, I think he’s paying for it, at least for now."

    [Commentary: This is pure speculation. Zogby’s poll numbers are just that: purely descriptive numbers. They have no explanatory power for inferring a causal connection between President Clinton’s misconduct in office and Al Gore’s standing in the polls. To achieve that feat would necessitate very specifically framed questions on the Zogby poll. To place Zogby’s sloppy logic in perspective, consider this: If Gore had been riding high in the polls, Zogby could just as easily have declared that Gore’s "Boy Scout" image juxtaposed him in stark contrast to the errant bad-boy Bill Clinton. In short, Zogby’s political "analysis" is unfalsifiable, and surely John Zogby must know that unfalsifiability is a hallmark of pseudoscience. It is not my purpose to single John Zogby out for criticism; most pollsters when asked to express an opinion are guilty of reading their numbers like tea leaves, without alerting their audience when they are projecting beyond the constraints of their data. Caveat emptor!]

    Zogby (continuing): "Secondly, this is very much a celebrity culture and a celebrity process. This is the age of 24-hour news TV, as we well know, and basically seven years he’s been vice president and so people are saying, ‘Hey, it’s time for a new face; we’re kind of tired of the same old faces’."

    [Commentary: I believe that Zogby is correct about the impact of celebrity on the political process; however, his analysis raises this question: What about President George Bush, who was vice president for eight years before being elected president? As for the often-heard argument that President Bush essentially served a third Reagan term, why not elect Al Gore while the going is good? After all, did we not attribute the survival of the Clinton presidency under the sword of impeachment to the strong economy?]

    Zogby (continuing): "And then, lastly, you know, George W. Bush hasn’t been out there, hasn’t engaged yet, nor has Elizabeth Dole for that matter, and so they are at the moment fresh faces who have not really been pounding each other or been pounded by others in a primary process, so I think eventually you’re going to see this tighten up."

    [Commentary: Fresh face? Elizabeth Dole? But even so, why then does Gore continue to sag in the polls? Shouldn’t he at least be holding his own, considering he, too, hasn’t been pounded in a primary process?]

    In my opinion, Al Gore will not be the next president of the United States—but not because he is paying the price for Clinton’s mistakes or because voters are "tired of the same old faces." Al Gore will not be elected because of a disturbing cultural trend presidential elections: Since the advent of television no presidential election has been won by the more introverted, less charismatic candidate, with the exception of Richard Nixon—and Al Gore, basically a good and honest man, is no Richard Nixon.

    Should Gore become his party’s nominee in 2000, personal style will play a pivotal role in what I regard as the vice president’s personality-based unelectability in our contemporary television-dominated, public-relations oriented electoral process. Indeed, the albatross of the scandal-plagued Clinton presidency, the China fundraising connection, the vice president’s own "dialing-for-dollars" woes, and the April 29, 1996 fiasco at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights will prove to be the least of Al Gore’s troubles in 2000.

    The public perception of Gore as "boring" captures the essence of the image that Al Gore’s underlying personality dynamics must inevitable project upon the public mind—and in our modern-day "made for media" presidential elections, perception is reality. On psychological grounds, the perception of Gore as boring can be attributed to the two dominant themes in his underlying character structure revealed in my (Immelman, 1998) personality assessment: conscientiousness and introversion.

    In the highly salient psychological domain of expressive behavior (see Millon, 1996, pp. 513-514), conscientious personalities display an air of austerity and serious-mindedness and exhibit a certain postural tightness; their movements are typically deliberate and dignified and they display a tendency to speak precisely, with clear diction and well-phrased sentences. Emotions are constrained by a regulated, highly structured, carefully organized lifestyle. Their clothing is characteristically formal or proper, and restrained in color and style. While perhaps admirable on objective grounds, the personal qualities of conscientious personalities are not well suited to firing up the public’s imagination.

    The foregoing conscientious propensities are greatly exacerbated by coexistent introversive qualities, as is the case with Al Gore. According to Millon (1996, pp. 230-231), highly introverted personalities are expressively impassive; they tend to be stoical, stolid, or detached. They display deficient expressiveness across a broad range of psychological domains—physically, behaviorally, and emotionally—and are characteristically restrained. They may be perceived as passive and lacking in enthusiasm, initiative, or vigor. Publicly, they display a lack of spontaneity—an unanimated, if not "robotic," quality. Physical movement may be languid, lumbering, or lacking in rhythm, and speech tends to be slow, monotonous, and deficient in affective expressiveness. These personalities rarely "perk up" or respond animatedly to the feelings of others, which may be mistakenly perceived as a lack of kindness or compassion. Being underresponsive to stimulation, they are neither quickly provoked to anger nor easily humored, and rarely report feelings of anger or anxiety, sadness or joy.

    Unlike the extraverted, outgoing Bill Clinton, Al Gore is not prone to being energized by adulating crowds. This social reserve and emotional distance is publicly perceived as a lack of empathy and social indifference, which elicits—and this is key to making sense of Gore’s lackluster poll numbers—a reciprocal reaction in others.


Immelman, A. (1998, July). The political personality of U.S. vice president Al Gore. Paper presented at the Twenty-First Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Montréal, Québec.

Millon, T. (1996). Disorders of personality: DSM-IV and beyond (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman, USPP director and Suzanne Wetzel, USPP contributor

Last updated April 16, 2000