The Inverted Likability Test

Voters may be less interested in whether a candidate is likable than in whether the candidate would like them.

Democratic presidential candidates
Associated Press

The outcome of the 2004 election offered pundits a puzzle. George W. Bush had, as many of them saw it, been a disastrous president. He redistributed money from the poor to the rich. He started a war that was rapidly turning sour. Most irritating of all, he constantly stumbled over his own words. How, they asked themselves, could so many of their compatriots have once again voted for such a doofus?

As pundits dissected the outcome, one data point seemed to provide a plausible explanation. According to a poll taken two months before the election, most undecided voters would have preferred to drink a beer with Bush rather than his opponent, John Kerry. As one columnist for USA Today put it at the time, “President Bush, despite his many problems, strikes most of the American people as a pretty nice guy—the kind of guy they would feel comfortable with if he showed up at their front door.”

This way of analyzing candidates and their supposed likability is now routine. But what if the old beer line gets the truth exactly backwards?

Maybe it’s not that voters prefer the candidate they would rather have a beer with; maybe they prefer the candidate who would rather have a beer with them.

In the late fall of 2009, Martha Coakley was in the midst of her campaign to succeed the late Ted Kennedy as a U.S. senator for Massachusetts. When some polls showed her trailing Scott Brown, the Republican nominee, Coakley hit back at accusations that she was not campaigning hard enough. Was she really supposed to stand “outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?” A few weeks later, Coakley lost the election, costing Democrats their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

The original formulation of the beer question invites the question of why voters would care so much about something that is exceedingly unlikely to happen. If you invert it, however, voters start to look a lot less irrational. After all, they can’t foresee all the decisions politicians will need to make once in office, and have few ways of holding them accountable if they don’t follow through on their promises. So they need to estimate which politicians are most likely to understand and advance their interests.

A candidate’s attitudes toward “people like me” thus become a powerful heuristic. If a candidate generally likes people like me, then it seems plausible that he will look out for my interests in a wide range of scenarios. If he dislikes people like me—if he would hate sharing a beer with me, and secretly thinks I’m trash—then he is far more likely to sell me out.

The inverted beer test provides an explanation for why Coakley’s gaffe was so harmful: A politician who finds the idea of spending time with Red Sox fans unpleasant is not going to balk at selling them out. It also explains why Gordon Brown calling an elderly lady “bigoted” in 2010, or Hillary Clinton describing some Donald Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables” in 2016, resonated: It seemingly confirmed many voters’ suspicions that they are elitists who look down on “ordinary” people.

Because pollsters have, to my knowledge, never directly asked voters whether they feel that a candidate would like to share a beer with them, I can’t offer direct proof for my hypothesis. But likedability, rather than likability, does help to make sense of something else that has puzzled many pundits of late: Joe Biden’s stable lead in the Democratic primary.

Since his earliest days in politics, Biden has yearned to make a connection with every person in the room. As Richard Ben Cramer described in What It Takes, the classic account of the 1988 presidential campaign, Biden would refuse to move on from an event until he felt that he had made “the connect” with every single person who had come to see him.

In a more recent profile that is, on the whole, critical of Biden, New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi describes his love of people in strikingly similar terms:

He really does connect with every living being this way, talking about their jobs or their health care as he listens, sometimes crying with them, whispering in their ears, taking their phone numbers and promising to call them. He does, in fact, do that. Everybody is Joe Biden’s long-lost friend. Every baby is Joe Biden’s long-lost child. A little girl in Iowa City called him her uncle Joe. On the Fourth of July in the town of Independence, he took off, running through the parade like a dingo with somebody’s newborn. As hard as it might be to believe that anything in this realm could not be bullshit, it’s simply true that this isn’t.

Even Biden’s insistence that he would be willing to work with Republicans—which has been panned by pundits, who dismiss this aspiration as antiquated—takes on a somewhat different complexion from this vantage point. By emphasizing that Republicans are too extreme and partisan to come to the negotiating table, other candidates implicitly impugn the character of anybody who has voted for them. This includes not only those voters who are so disappointed with Donald Trump that they are open to voting for somebody like Biden in 2020, but also many spouses, siblings, or parents of those who usually vote Democrat.

Biden insists on seeing the best in people. Whether or not his view is realistic, it clearly signals that he does not sit in judgment of either his would-be supporters or their loved ones. If there’s one thing that’s easy to believe about Biden, it is that he’d love to get a beer with you—and your dad, and your mother-in-law, and even your crazy uncle.

This stands in marked contrast to some of Biden’s biggest rivals. When Elizabeth Warren was asked what she would say to a supporter who told her that his faith teaches him that marriage is between one man and one woman, for example, she at first responded with a good-natured joke: “Just marry one woman.” Then she added a sneer: “assuming you can find one.”

The problem with Warren’s response is not that she strongly supports same-sex marriage. (Biden, who publicly pledged his support for legalizing same-sex marriage before Barack Obama, does too.) The problem is that she gave the impression that she would regard anybody who disagrees with her—or is married to someone who does—as a loser.

There is good reason to believe that voters are less interested in how much they like a politician than in whether the politician would like them. In assessing political candidates, they ask themselves questions like: Could I be myself with her? Would she judge me for my opinions? Would she have a good time if we shared a beer in my living room?

This possibility makes ideological purity tests especially dangerous. Most Americans spend relatively little time thinking about public policy. Politicians who give the impression that they are quick to disparage any contrary opinions, or to dismiss voters who express the right values in the wrong ways, are likely to fail the real beer test.

This is a lesson Democrats should urgently take to heart. According to a recent poll, most Americans fear that the Democratic Party doesn’t really want them. Asked whether they feel that “people like me are welcome in the Democratic Party,” only 44 percent of all voters and 38 percent of independents agreed.

Maybe Kerry did not lose to Bush because people didn’t want to have a beer with him, then; maybe he lost because he gave the impression that he didn’t want to have a beer with them. If Democrats don’t change their ways, they may, for some of the same reasons, fail to stop an even more deeply flawed president from gaining a second term.