What Charisma Is

November 2004

Several people who read It's Charisma, Stupid have asked what I mean by charisma. After all, if I'm only saying that people vote for the candidate they like, I'm not saying much. So I want to emphasize that I'm talking about something that could be predicted well in advance of the election-- indeed, something that can generally be predicted from political cartoons.

Before an election there is usually little disagreement about which candidate is more charismatic. (This may change if charisma starts to be perceived as the key to winning.) In this past election, even Kerry's supporters worried about his "patrician reserve." Or think of Gore, who was so wooden that it seemed to him the best plan to make a joke of it.

If political cartoons portray your candidate as stupid or unprincipled, you have nothing to worry about. But once they portray him as boring, you're in trouble.

While it's generally easy to say which candidate has more charisma, it's a little harder to say what charisma consists of. Off the top of my head, I'd say that one has to be confident, cheerful, and outgoing. But especially outgoing.

I suspect the key to charisma is to like people. All politicians smile when they're working a crowd, but the really charismatic ones don't have to remember to smile. Their smiles are genuine, because they're enjoying themselves. If you look at photographs of Clinton in a crowd, time and again you see him stretching way out to reach people's hands--- often over his own Secret Service agents, like a basketball player stretching to block a shot. And he's not merely smiling. He's ecstatic. Working a crowd is not a duty for him; it's the part he likes.

Kennedy was the same way. He couldn't bear to be alone. He had aides whose main job was just to be available so that he never had to.

Why should liking people make you charismatic? Because if you like someone, they'll like you. And vice versa. Imagine you had two acquaintances, one who had a reputation as a great guy but for some reason clearly disliked you, and another who was generally considered worthless, but thought the world of you. Which would you be more inclined to do a favor for?

Expand this to people in general, and it's called charisma. If you like people, people will like you. And so if you happen to have an insatiable craving for human contact, you'll tend to be charismatic, just as if you happen to be eight feet tall you'll tend to make a good basketball player.

Uncharismatic politicians smile so that people will like them. Charismatic ones smile because they like people.