More on the race

by Russ Roberts on October 12, 2007

in Politics

In this recent post, I predicted that Rudy Giuliani would get the Republican nomination and that barring dramatic changes in the economic landscape or the war in Iraq, he would defeat Hillary if she gets the nomination. A number of people in the comments misinterpreted what I said or asked for clarification. Here are a few additional points.

1. I said nothing about Giuliani’s policy positions. I merely observed that his style, the way he came across as a human being on TV, dominated his opponents. This was the first debate I’d watched. It was the first time I’d seen most of these people on TV. None of them came across as well as Giuliani did. Thompson, who was making his debate debut, was charmless and looked bored. Unless he can do better, he will be a non-factor. Romney, Giuliani’s other main rival. came across as robotic and plastic, if it’s possible to do both at the same time. Someone described him to me before as charisma-free. That’s a bit strong and doesn’t quite capture what makes him less than endearing. Maybe with coaching he can get better. Maybe Fred Thompson just had a bad day.

All of the above is about the ability of a politician to connect on TV. Most people can’t. It’s a very rare skill and it’s important. It’s very important. It’s one of the main reasons that Bush was able to defeat Gore and Kerry. He was the candidate you’d rather have a beer with. The simplest way to capture this idea is charisma. Giuliani had it on camera the other day. His opponents didn’t.

On the idea/policy side, the three "major" candidates (G,R and T) are all similar. They all brag about how much they hate taxes. None of them truly believes in freedom and decentralized power. And none of them can articulate the case for economic freedom with much poetry or inspiration. So while there are some differences between them (Giuliani’s use of RICO and faith in prosecutorial power creeps me out, for example and Romney is way too cheerful about government solving this and that) they’re all going to run on a Reaganesque domestic policy platform without much likelihood of actually following through. On foreign policy, I don’t see dramatic differences. Heck, I’m not sure the differences between any of them and Hillary is that strong on foreign policy. Remember, what they say and what they do are often different. It would be tempting to say that Giuliani has a bigger potential than say Romney or Thompson to be a megalomaniac, based on his prosecutorial delight. But at this level, they’ve all got a little or a lot of that in ’em. It’s a part of why they’re running. Maybe a big part.

The lack of true, dramatic differences (yeah, that line-item veto controversy sure was exciting wasn’t it?) is the main reason charisma matters. It’s not that voters are superficial. If the rhetorical and policy positions aren’t that different, pick the best human being, the one with the best judgment and wisdom and humanity. So voters try to get a read on the character of the person. And if one person comes as stiff or uneasy or bored or shrill or plastic and one comes across as relaxed and genuine and comfortable in his own skin, the latter gets an edge.

Bottom line–I’m not excited about any of them. And I’m not excited about any of the rhetorical skills any of them have. But I think Rudy’s going to win.

2. I predicted that Giuliani would defeat Hillary barring major changes in the economy or the war. I said her best chance of winning was if the economy tanked. I did not mean to imply that the economy was going to tank. I meant that it was the most likely way for her to win. What did I mean by tanking? A recession that shows little sign of ending quickly. So if the first two quarters of ’08 show negative growth and those reports come out close to election time and unemployment is growing steadily through next summer, I think Hillary will win. But barring that and barring a major worsening of Iraq or something else on the terrorist front, Rudy will win. And there are lots of things that could happen on the terrorist front that could help him.

3. It’s early. Things could change. The presumptive or actual front-runner doesn’t always win. I could say it will be fun to see what happens, but I have a funny feeling it won’t be.


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