Leaders' Personalities and the Outcomes of Democratic Elections

By Anthony King | Go to book overview

1 Do Leaders' Personalities Really Matter?

Anthony King

Almost every casual conversation during a national election campaign contains references to the personal characteristics of major party leaders and candidates. In the United States in 2000, George W. Bush was said to be affable and relaxed but at the same time ruthless and not desperately bright, while Al Gore was described as arrogant, wooden, and verbose but, at the same time, oddly unsure of himself. On the other side of the Atlantic in 2001, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, was said to be youthful, vigorous, and dynamic—or, alternatively, smarmy, smug and unctuous—while the then Conservative leader, William Hague, was usually dismissed as a political lightweight—in British parlance, as “a bit of a wally.” French commentators in the 1990s uniformly paid tribute to Lionel Jospin's doggedness and evident sincerity. To many Germans during the 1998 federal election Helmut Kohl seemed old and tired (as well as fat) while Gerhard Schröder seemed more vigorous and “charismatic” (as well as possibly somewhat glib and superficial). Comments along these lines are the small change of electoral politics in every country at all times.

Moreover, leaders' and candidates' personal characteristics are thought to be important; they are thought to matter. Those who earnestly contemplated Pierre Trudeau's sex life in the Canada of the 1970s, or Boris Yeltsin's drinking habits when he ran for the presidency of Russia in 1996, did not imagine that they were engaging in idle gossip. They took it for granted that the personalities and personal behavior of these leaders, especially as compared with those of their opponents, were likely to sway the votes of individual electors and thereby, quite possibly, the outcomes of whole elections. This belief in the importance of leaders' personal characteristics underlies much of the talk of the “presidentialization” of modern election campaigns, even in countries with parliamentary systems of government. 1

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