Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics

Back to USPP Home

This article is also available at the updated USPP website »

Maverick McCain Finds His Mojo But What Does It Mean?

Patrick Sweetman and Aubrey Immelman

January 7, 2008

John McCain’s victory in Tuesday’s New Hampshire Republican primary has injected new life in a presidential campaign some had all but given up for dead.

With recent polls showing McCain to be the Republican contender best positioned to beat the Democratic nominee in November, the resuscitation of McCain’s presidential prospects in New Hampshire raises anew the question of how he might govern as leader of the free world. 

For many, the name John McCain conjures up the image of a hard-nosed, unrelenting, tough military man. While this popular notion is largely accurate, it also is limited and certainly does not encompass the entirety of who McCain is as a person and a leader.

To obtain a more precise, multifaceted picture of McCain the man, we developed a personality profile of the senator from Arizona, employing a standard assessment procedure developed at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

Because personality remains relatively constant over time and drives a person’s thoughts and actions across a broad range of situations, predicting a candidate’s behavior in office requires knowledge not only of their policy positions, but also of their enduring personality dispositions and attributes.

Straight-shooting nonconformist

The profile revealed that McCain’s most prominent personal attribute is an adventurous, dauntless, dissenting quality consistent with his popular image as a “maverick.”

In addition to his central trait of fearless, straight-shooting nonconformity, McCain also ranked high on extraversion and dominance; thus, beyond simply being bold, courageous, and against the grain, McCain also is outgoing, gregarious, tough, strong-willed, and determined – personality traits that help him not only to connect with voters on a personal level, but also to earn their respect and admiration.

McCain’s particular combination of personality traits is indicative of a personality type known as the “risk-taking adventurer.” Leaders in this mold are characteristically bold, fearless, sensation seeking, and driven by a need to prove their mettle.

Cause for concern?

Clearly, some of McCain’s more unruly traits could be cause for concern at a time when the United States faces multiple national security threats around the world. After all, one of the lessons of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis is that saber-rattling or shooting from the hip can have fatal consequences in the foreign-policy arena.

However, the good news is that risk-taking adventurousness is considerably tempered after the onset of middle age. In that sense, McCain’s age, complemented by many years of foreign-policy experience, is an asset.

In short, a prospective President McCain will not be risk averse; however, any risks he takes will likely be calculated risks. That could be a plus in crisis situations that require the president to act decisively.

Leadership strengths

Based on his personality profile, McCain’s major leadership strengths are independence, persuasiveness, and courage, coupled with a socially responsive, outgoing tendency that can be instrumental in connecting with critical constituencies for mobilizing support and implementing his policy initiatives.

McCain’s major personality-based limitation is a predisposition to impulsiveness – though, as noted above, this tendency has been tempered by age and experience. Nonetheless, as president, McCain could be expected to display an occasional deficit of emotional restraint under stress – for example, his notoriously fiery temper.

Daring leadership style

In executive office, the behavior of dauntless, dissenting leaders like McCain is characteristically shaped by a quest for power and, to a lesser extent, ideological drive. As daring, nonconformist individuals willing to take calculated risks, they are unlikely to be strongly motivated by issues of self-validation or pragmatism.

They also are more likely to be goal- rather than process oriented, given their adventurous and innovative approach to policy matters and their relative lack of interest in the machinery of government or the maintenance of harmonious relations.

For the same reason, they also are more likely to act as advocates for their own policy vision rather than as consensus builders or arbitrators – a tendency reinforced by a personality predisposition that stresses competition, risk-taking, and adventurousness.

Confrontational when crossed

In the area of personnel management, dauntless leaders like McCain can be expected to be only minimally interactive, given their tendency to act autonomously and their disinclination to adhere to conventional standards. They will tend to treat subordinates in a jovial and convivial manner; however, when obstructed or crossed, they may become confrontational and difficult.

In their dealings with members of their party in the legislative branch of government, their national party organization, and opposing parties, dauntless leaders are more likely to remain relatively uninvolved, behaving in a cooperative, harmonious fashion when things go well and to become demanding and difficult when problems of control arise.

Finally, in their dealings with the public, dauntless leaders like McCain can be expected to be active rather than passive; because of their self-confident, outspoken nature, such leaders are likely to show a preference for personally articulating and defending their policies. 

If McCain does ultimately get the Republican nomination, it will most likely be on the basis of a gritty determination and ability to connect with people, conveyed by his fundamental character traits and reinforced by his compelling life story as a courageous war hero.

Note. A slightly revised version of this article was published as the "Your Turn" column "McCain profile helps gauge presidential potential" in the St. Cloud Times (p. 7B), Jan. 10, 2008.

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman

Last updated March 10, 2008