If you’ve watched any of the debates between Senate candidates Tim Kaine and Corey Stewart, well, we’re sorry for you. You probably didn’t learn very much that’s useful.
You probably learned this, though: Stewart is not a happy man.
The political differences between Democratic incumbent Kaine and Republican challenger Stewart are pretty profound and perfectly predictable. Democrats believe one set of things, Republicans another. That’s how politics works. Most voters probably knew going into this year’s campaign whether they preferred Democratic policies or Republican ones.
That’s why we’re curious about the other big difference between the two candidates. It’s a stylistic one. Kaine comes across as what some have called “America’s Dad” —even-tempered, prone to speak of things he disagrees with in a tone of disappointment. Stewart, though, raises his voice repeatedly, expressing his outrage through volume. He uses strong, stark adjectives to describe things. He comes across as, well, angry.
Here’s the question: Does Stewart’s angry persona help him or hurt him? This is not a partisan question but a psychological one about what temperament voters prefer in their politicians. This is hardly the first time that the question has been raised, either.
Back in 2006, the chairman of the national Republican Party said that Hillary Clinton — then a U.S. Senator from New York who was considered her party’s front-runner for the 2008 nomination — was too “angry” to win the White House.
Ken Mehlman cited some unkind things that Clinton had said about the George W. Bush administration and observed that she “seems to have a lot of anger.” Mehlman went on to say: “I don’t think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates.”
Mehlman’s comments made many Democrats, well, angry. They said that Republican policies gave Democrats a lot to be angry about. They also saw some sexism at work — that women are judged by a different emotional standard than men. If a man is angry, then he’s strong. If a woman is angry, then she’s hysterical. That sort of thing.
Let’s come back to that point, but we can say this. At the time, it was the Republican strategy to paint virtually every Democrat as “angry” and therefore unfit to govern.
Irony abounds: In 2000, when Clinton was running for the Senate and expected to face New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, she made a point of calling him angry, way too angry to be a senator. Guiliani, she said, “gets angry very often. I don’t see the point in getting angry all the time and expending all the energy when we could be figuring out a better way to take care of people.”
We cite all this back-and-forth from decades past to make this point: The Republican chairman was right in 2006 when he said that Americans, historically, don’t elect angry candidates.
In fact, emotion of any kind has proven problematic in politics. Just ask Ed Muskie, who was the Democratic front-runner in 1972 until he reacted to a particular charge (which turns out to have been fabricated) by shedding a tear. Or perhaps it was just the New Hampshire snow melting on his cheek, as his campaign claimed. No matter, Muskie’s “crying speech” effectively ended his campaign. So did Howard Dean’s unexpectedly animated shout when he finished strong in the 2004 Democratic caucuses in Iowa. What became known as the “Dean scream” did not play well with voters who saw it as a sign that the candidate was not simply enthusiastic but somehow out of control.
It turns out there’s a solid base of academic research on the subject and the results are pretty unanimous: Voters don’t like angry candidates.
In 2011, the University of Chicago Press published research by Deborah Jordan Brooks, a government professor at Dartmouth College. Her conclusion: “All else being equal, candidates — whether they are male or female — should do their best not to display anger or to cry.” Anger, she found, hurts candidates no matter what. Crying, she found, was more complicated. It drove up perceptions of empathy and honesty but hurt in other ways, resulting in a “modest disadvantage.”
She also found, contrary to popular perception, no evidence of gender bias at work when it came to how votes perceived emotions. “There is simply no evidence that female candidates face disproportionate penalties on Election Day if they cry or get angry.” That’s a topic for another day. The point here is: Voters don’t like angry candidates.
Or at least they didn’t in 2011. How about 2018? Have things changed?
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor famous for his media studies, believed that the television age rewarded “cool” candidates and disadvantaged “hot” ones. Not cool in the sense of being hip, but cool in the sense of being calm, cool and collected. In McLuhan’s formulation, John Kennedy was the “cool” candidate in 1960 while Richard Nixon was the “hot” one. By 1968, we had a “new Nixon” who tried to project a less aggressive image.
Challengers have the burden of trying to make the case why the incumbent has failed, while trying not to look too harsh. Ronald Reagan offered the textbook example of how to pull that off. It’s hard to find references to him without the adjectives “sunny” and “optimistic.”
Did the 2016 presidential election change things? Trump was certainly not “sunny” or “optimistic.” He was very much the “hot” candidate in that race, yet he blew through the Republican primaries and then won the general election, as well. Have voter reactions toward “angry” candidates changed? Or was Trump an outlier who took advantage of unusual conditions? Stewart vs. Kaine offers a more conventional clash between a “hot” candidate and a “cool” one. Is Stewart’s anger a sign of strength or a sign of weakness? Ditto for Kaine’s more laid-back personality, sensible to some, milquetoast to others.
Polls have shown that voters are angry — a University of Delaware survey this summer found that 61 percent of those surveyed said they were “angry about politics,” with women angrier than men. The poll found 66 percent of women were angry, while 58 percent of men were. Of course, they might be angry over different things. Right now, everyone seems angry over the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, just in different ways.
Stewart may simply be channeling the mood of some voters. The danger for him is that there may be more voters angry the other way.