In 2000, George W. Bush couldn't ask Americans, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The Clinton/Gore administration was an economic success. Al Gore's weakness was his stiffness, his elitism, which Bill Clinton didn't suffer. So Bush and his aides hit on just the right question: "Who would you rather have a beer with?"
Bush squeaked out a victory (maybe) based on this thin reed: You, average American - who would you like to have a beer with? Well, we average Americans would like to have a beer with other average Americans. With people like us.
This is how the president is elected: Based on how he looks like, seems like, feels like the electorate. This is how we elect one of our own: Our Calvin Coolidges and Harry Trumans and Richard Nixons and George Bushes. (Recall that Nixon won his elections, including a huge landslide, based on claiming to represent the average American, the silent majority). Not that they are all terrible presidents, but they have their weaknesses.
This week, in a leaked video, Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, reprised the Beer Test: 5-10% of the electorate will decide this campain, he said. Forty-seven percent support Obama, another similar figure presumably support Romney. That leaves the 5-10% in the middle, the vaunted independents.
How do they decide? Said Romney: "I have to convince the 5-10% in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending in some cases based on emotion, whether they like the guy or not...." There is George W. Bush's lodestar - the beer test.
Romney's secret video has been seen as embarassing because he seems to demean half the population as entitled and unworthy. But I think the comment on emotion, largely ignored by the media, is more important. This is the real secret to the Republican presidential campaigns of the past many decades. Ideology matters, certainly: many voted for Reagan and Nixon and the Bushes because they agreed with their conservative ideas. But in tight elections, some voted for Reagan because he raised that beer in that Boston bar, for Nixon because he was an average guy with a cute dog, for the Bushes because they wrapped themselves up in baseball and family life.
Leaders like Bush and Romney, despite their wealth and privilege, work hard to claim that they are basically normal people, average folks, living in basements and loving their wives, just like the rest of us. Their goal is to get the 5-10% to "like" them, and pull the voting lever.
But the flipside of this beer test strategy is that if what they say is true, they likely will be poor crisis leaders. Most people are mentally healthy and normal; Bush and Romney are saying that they are mentally healthy and normal. This mental health has been shown, in research studies, to be associated with less realism and empathy and creativity and resilience than persons with depression or bipolar illness. If these leaders are so normal, then they aren't great leaders. That's my view, based on that psychological research and historical study. Readers can examine that research before they make their own judgments. But if I am right, there is an important consequence:
The worst way of choosing our leaders is by picking someone we like, someone who we would like to have a beer with. In that case, Neville Chamberlain is much more attractive than Winston Churchill.