Political Hay

Little Things Mean a Lot

Presidential candidates should sweat the small stuff -- it is often more important than policy details.

By 7.10.07

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It is the little things that matter. A $1250 haircut, Hillary's voice, and Fred Thompson's comment about Cuban immigrants do not seem to have much to do with being a good president. Pundits and campaign aides would like to think elections turn on weightier matters like whether Republicans are single issue voters or whether Democrats value experience more than charisma. But often it is the small incidents -- because they are small and overlooked by lurking political consultants -- which the average voter notices and rightly or wrongly sees as emblematic of a candidate. Al Gore knew all the answers but the sighs and grimaces parodied on Saturday Night Live convinced enough people he was the smart aleck they loathed in school.

Truth be told even the most sophisticated voters find it hard to make nuanced determinations based on policy. Is Hillary or Obama's health plan better? Will Giuliani or McCain be more aggressive in eliminating pork barrel spending? In part these issues have become so complex and the policy gurus so numerous on both sides that the average voter simply lacks the expertise to determine who is "better." In part many of these questions are nothing more than guesses about how a candidate will perform and how faithful he or she will be to the campaign promises made in the heat of a campaign.

So rather than plunge into a morass of policy minutiae voters seek insight and comfort in small, intensely human moments and personal quirks to give them a sense of the candidate. Seemingly trivial events and surface characteristics play a larger role than we'd like to admit in determining whether we want to live with a candidate for the next four or eight years.

John Edwards' haircut in the greater scheme of things is meaningless. He is a wealthy man and can spend his money on hair or suits or fancy lunches. However, in the campaign narrative which screams "populist" and "two Americas" at every turn it seems proof positive he is a phony for those who previously harbored a suspicion that the populist is more a poser. It seems more likely than not now that the former trial attorney is selling us like he sold a jury. Combined with his work for the hedge fund and the hefty speaking fees to talk about poverty (you can't make this stuff up) he seems like an updated version of Elmer Gantry.

Hillary took to the road last week. If you turned off the sound and watched she looked every ounce the polished and attractive politician poised to sweep to the nomination. She beamed and Bill receded. In brightly colored outfits she seemed to defy the image cooked up by the YouTube Apple ad video. She was vibrant and sunny, not dour and grim. However, if you turned off the picture and the sound on, the contrast was striking. The flat, harsh Midwestern tones were mildly jarring and as the volume increased the screech reappeared. Suddenly the image was more the nagging wife, the voice like nails on a chalk board. So the question remains, for all her polish, will Americans want her in their living rooms and on their car radios for years to come?

Fred Thompson, the not yet candidate, usually avoids substance as his ventures out on the stump. He did however venture into immigration last month, declaring that "we get to decide who comes into our home" and strangely suggested, "I don't imagine they're [Cubans] coming here to bring greetings from Castro. We're living in the era of the suitcase bomb." Soon criticism reigned, questioning what dangers those fleeing Castro's oppression pose (and why he would offend such a key constituency in Florida). From his blog he later suggested there really was some plot afoot by Cubans ("we must oppose the illegal immigration of Castro's agents into the United States"). The episode suggested that maybe the next best hope for conservatives is not as polished as his supporters would hope and that he lacks advisers to point out his goofs. He will enjoy a short honeymoon, but more of these will send conservatives scurrying after their next best chance.

In the end, these and a hundred other small moments and assorted personal characteristics will combine in voters minds to form an indelible portrait of the contenders. Voter will, whether consciously or not, conclude this one is odd, the other is grumpy, that one is a novice and the other one is too remote. They will decide who is resolute and who is annoying and who is just too much to bear for four or eight years. That is why the little things loom so large.

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