(Written during the 2016 Primaries)
By Richard Ellis
Have you noticed something different about the dialogue surrounding the 2016 presidential election? While candidates and pundits alike are talking about big-ticket issues, the focus on personality is bigger than ever. Not since the 1960’s first-ever TV debate, in which an awkward Richard Nixon squared off against an effortlessly charismatic John F. Kennedy, has personality played such a big role in election coverage.
The tendency of this year’s election coverage hones in on how likable we find the candidates—from Bernie Sanders’ candid approach to Donald Trump’s combination of the outrageous and the amusing. All of this might seem like a symptom of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but underneath it all, the focus is on personality style rather than platform ideas.
If you think that targeting personality is shallow, think again. There’s much insight to be gained by examining its role in politics. Leading personality style expert, Merrick Rosenberg, has been studying and teaching about personality style for decades. He recently offered his insights on how the personalities of the various candidates will play a role in the upcoming presidential election.
It turns out that the four personality styles greatly impact our perception of the candidates – and they know it. From Hillary Clinton’s efforts to appear more approachable, to Carly Fiorina’s matter-of-fact approach, personality may, in fact, be more important than platform.
Rosenberg classifies the styles into four categories: Direct and result-driven Eagles (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders), charismatic and enthusiastic Parrots (Marco Rubio and Joe Biden), soft-spoken and harmonious Doves (Ben Carson) and logical and analytical Owls (Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush).
Drawing on his experience with the styles, he has identified a pattern in presidential politics that is so consistent it has held true for 80 years in 21 straight elections. Armed with these reliable findings, Rosenberg might just be able to predict the winner of the 2016 presidential election based solely on the personality style of the leading candidates.
Rosenberg has documented that in head-to-head match ups, the outgoing, big personalities of Eagles and Parrots have beaten the more reserved and soft-spoken Doves and Owls in every election since 1928. In fact, in the 21 elections since Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928, the only times that Doves and Owls have won were when they faced other Doves and Owls. Parenthetically, prior to the dawn of radio, followed by the invention of television, these personality predictors were far less reliable, for obvious reasons. Prior to radio and television, candidates were judged far more based on their platform than their personalities. Mass media has changed everything.
As a nation, we apparently prefer assertive, dominant and enthusiastic presidents over thoughtful, quiet and harmonious leaders. This pattern holds true regardless of whether a candidate is a new or an incumbent, the economy is thriving or flailing, or even whether the United States is at war or enjoying a time of peace.
Notice that Eagle George W. Bush beat Owls, John Kerry and Al Gore. Parrot, Bill Clinton beat Owl, Bob Dole. Before that, Lyndon Johnson Eagle’s style beat Barry Goldwater’s Owl personality and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Eagle/Parrot style topped Herbert Hoover’s Owl approach.
Simply put, Eagles and Parrots beat Doves and Owls…every time.
It’s interesting to note, however, that when Eagles and Parrots go up against other Eagles and Parrots, it’s a toss-up. It’s also a toss-up when Owls and Doves battle other Owls and Doves. Rosenberg cites the example of Owl, George H.W. Bush, who won the job of president against fellow Owl, Michael Dukakis, but lost by a wide margin to Parrot, Bill Clinton. Likewise, Dove Jimmy Carter was victorious against fellow Dove, Gerald Ford, but came up short against Parrot, Ronald Reagan.
So what does this mean for the 2016 presidential election? Given that GOP leader, Donald Trump, is unmistakably an Eagle, Hillary Clinton may be better served by focusing on the Eagle aspect of her personality. While Hillary is primarily an Owl, her secondary Eagle style is not a far stretch for her. Bernie Sanders, too, has strong Eagle tendencies and this would serve him well against the Republican Eagles.
Notice how people have been talking about GOP contender, Ben Carson, who has a combination of Owl and Dove characteristics. He has routinely been criticized for being too soft, sleepy and boring. Jeb Bush’s Owl style has also been attacked for its lack of excitement. Americans do not seem to take kindly to personality characteristics that indicate a softer approach when it comes to presidential leadership.
In the 2008 election, Hillary’s Owl style was in full-force. This time around, she seems to be accentuating the more relaxed tendencies of the Dove and the enthusiasm of the Parrot. If the past is a predictor of the future, she may wish to emphasize the confidence of the Eagle rather than the more approachable style of the Dove.
Donald Trump’s full-force Eagle mode tends to be swaying voters his way, as does Bernie Sander’s candor and directness. Note that Chris Christie was doing well in the polls until Donald Trump “out-Eagled” him. Trump’s stronger Eagle tendencies seem to have swayed the polls his way.
So, would GOP frontrunner Donald Trump beat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton? Based solely on Rosenberg’s observation that Trump’s Eagle style would beat Clinton’s Owl style, the answer would be yes. However, Rosenberg cautions that when we overuse our strengths, they become our weaknesses. Despite the pattern that Americans vote for Eagle candidates, too much Eagle energy can be a turn-off.
Overusing strengths tends to repel people who do not share the same philosophical beliefs. For this reason, as the GOP field begins to whittle down, Donald Trump may need to soften his Eagle tendencies to garner more mainstream support. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton may need to turn up the dial on her Eagle traits in order to win.
One thing is for certain, personality has played and will continue to play a major role in presidential politics.
We’re looking forward to hearing more insights from Merrick Rosenberg on the presidential election during one of his many upcoming speaking engagements. If you’d like to learn more about the four styles, check out Merrick Rosenberg’s book, Taking Flight!, and his soon-to-be-released book, The Chameleon. To schedule Merrick for keynotes engagements, or TV, radio or print interviews, contact Rick Kauffman at 856-807-0200 ext. 206.