Every time there is an election cycle, particularly for president, the polls, the media and the candidates pontificate how they feel about issues, foreign and domestic. After all, that’s what’s most important, right? Next in importance comes background along with personal integrity and professional achievements that give us a reflective picture about the candidate. Media pundits go about judging how good or bad candidates might be, based on their past record.

     Fact is, while all that may be important, these things are not what elects presidents, not in the last 60 years anyway. The number one asset any candidate must have, above money, above past record, above issues is: Charisma.

     Hillary Clinton is still licking her wounds pandering for sympathy for losing a fait accompli campaign in which she was all but coronated long before election day. After all, she was a “Clinton,” she had the endorsement of a sitting president, she had vast experience and she had far more campaign money at her disposal than her opponent, Donald Trump.  She can whine from now to dooms day about why she lost the election, but she’ll never admit to what she did not have: Charisma.

     Sure, millions of people still wanted to see her elected. But when the chips were down, over-confidence befell her and she failed to run a campaign which convinced the electorate in the right states to vote for her. When Hillary made speeches, people cringed. Her shrill voice was sharp and biting. She never came across as basic and sincere. She was a poor campaigner and worse, she has zero charisma. Had the democrats selected a candidate with charisma, I seriously doubt that Trump would be president today.

     Barack Obama had a poor track record for being presidential. His experience was mainly as a “community organizer” which, translated, meant he knew how to gather people into the voting booths. His record as a state senator was totally unremarkable, as was his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate, in which he hit the floor running for president the day after he won the senate seat. Obama’s history was steeped in friends and contacts within the Islamic world, not to mention his close association with a number of devout communists, including his closest mentor. Obama should never have been selected in the primaries against the likes of Sen. John McCain.

     Now – there was a presidential candidate with impressive credentials. He came from an heroic military family. He served his country as an officer and fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy. He suffered nearly six years as a POW. Later, he served combined multiple terms in the U.S. Congress and Senate, establishing himself as a tough, intelligent and loyal, deserving American.  He couldn’t be beat, he should not have been beat by some neophyte like Obama whose record was dismal in comparison.

     But, Obama could deliver speeches. He had charm, he had charisma. McCain had depth and experience, but in the new age of mass media scrutiny and photo ops, he could not stand up to a fire and brimstone personality such as Barack Obama. Yes, America needed a cool dude, not a rock solid American hero.

     In 1992, a young governor from Arkansas defeated another solid American over-achiever with a remarkable track record in government, including Vice-President for eight years, and a sitting president for four years. He also had established a stellar stint of wartime military service in the U.S. Navy. As president, he helped to defend and ally in Kuwait against the tyrannical invasion by Saddam Hussein’s army. George W. Bush was probably the most qualified candidate to be president in the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet, along came Bill Clinton who, in terms of charisma, could be rated a 10, compared to Bush’s 4. No matter what Bush did right, he could never match the smoothness of slick-Willie, Bill Clinton.

     Ronald Reagan was probably the only politicians who could have defeated Clinton, had they been rivals.  Reagan had it all, including a knack for off-the-cuff humor that no other president could equal. His opponents, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, were dead in the water from the very beginning of their campaigns against the actor/politician.

     1968 and 1972?  Nixon versus Humphrey and Nixon versus McGovern were two campaigns in which the candidates nullified each other, in terms of charisma. They had none. And, Gerald Ford, who ascended to the presidency to replace the shamed Nixon, had everything working against him (including being aligned with Nixon) when Jimmy Carter ran as a fresh face in politics in 1976.

     The “Charisma standard” all began in 1960, when then Vice-President Richard Nixon was challenged by a handsome, well-spoken, New-England Senator named John F. Kennedy. That was the year of the first televised debates, which doomed Nixon. According to polls of radio listeners only, Nixon won the debates. But when the TV viewers were polled, Kennedy won the derby. When the eloquent Kennedy spoke, people listened. On a scale of 1 to 10, his charm was a solid 10, while Nixon’s was somewhere under a 3. Never mind, that Nixon had already served eight years as a Vice-President under Eisenhower.

     So there it is.

     In today’s world, we probably would never have elected the likes of William Howard Taft, or Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, James Garfield, Cleveland, McKinley, or even Abe Lincoln.

     So, watch 2020. Credentials won’t matter. Look for the most charismatic speaker among all parties, and you’ll find your next president.


  1. Helen Bennett September 25, 2017 at 4:39 pm #

    One reason for McCain’s loss was his incomprehensibly horrible choice of a running mate, Sarah Palin.

  2. Charlie September 25, 2017 at 5:24 pm #

    As a long time voter this strikes me as spot on Marshall.

  3. Charle September 25, 2017 at 5:36 pm #

    From another Charle –

    I agree!! Well done…….

  4. Christopher Jones September 25, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

    Perfect though unfortunate (re/Obama) analysis.

  5. jkr September 25, 2017 at 5:59 pm #

    Unfortunately, it is only going to get worse.

  6. Patti September 25, 2017 at 7:38 pm #

    Right on!! Political strategist and adviser to Bill Clinton, said, “Give a candidate with charisma and I can make them President”. Everyone look for the prancing horse in the paddock.

    Can you imagine a good and good looking man, but droll, VP Mike Pence in a national race? He would have about as much chance as Calvin Coolidge now.

    Patti in So Cal

  7. Patti September 25, 2017 at 7:39 pm #

    Forgot to say the genius mentioned above was David Axelrod!

  8. Edward A. Hensley September 25, 2017 at 7:48 pm #

    Sadly true.

  9. John McGuire September 25, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

    Hi Marshall,

    That is an excellent, concise summary of the “charisma factor” as it applies/applied to those Presidents and candidates whom you mentioned. Though I completely agree with your assessment of Hillary’s lack of charisma, sense of entitlement, etc., there was more at work in her defeat.

    Though I might have missed something (and I re-read your comments twice), I note that you did not mention what you think of Trump’s charisma or lack thereof. I believe that to be a significant shortcoming in your otherwise compelling commentary Unless I missed something, I suggest you add a comment about your opinion of Trump’s charisma

  10. Fred M. September 25, 2017 at 7:53 pm #

    That’s how Jack Kennedy beat Nixon and then, that is how Nixon beat whatever rope-a-dopes the Dems put up against him. Better makeup wins, although massive plastic surgery and botox didn’t get Felonia von Pantsuit the job she wanted.

  11. Linda Santucci September 25, 2017 at 8:08 pm #

    Excellent breakdown. It takes all kinds to make America great. But Rick bottom, charisma makes the major difference in leadership. Policies must be SOLD to the masses.

  12. Lindy September 25, 2017 at 11:10 pm #

    Good article, Marshall.
    One thing not mentioned is who are the people who are most moved by charisma,
    and not the important qualities.
    Are they the people most easily affected by propaganda?
    All i can say is I was always suspicious of and never moved by Obama’s slick speech and lies. And although many thought him to be handsome, most thinkers i know could not stand the sight of him, because facts transcended the media’s propaganda.
    I truly believe that genetics play a part in how we all perceive things and decision-making.

  13. freewoman September 26, 2017 at 12:37 am #

    Thank you for this outstanding, thought provoking, article.

    Found very interesting your mention that “The “Charisma standard” all began in 1960, when then Vice-President Richard Nixon was challenged by a handsome, well-spoken, New-England Senator named John F. Kennedy. That was the year of the first televised debates, which doomed Nixon. According to polls of radio listeners only, Nixon won the debates. But when the TV viewers were polled, Kennedy won the derby.”

    Recalled how, back in my youthful days, listening to the “Inner Sanctum” on the radio often “scared me spitless”, while watching the movie “Psycho” never produced a similar effect.

    Could it be that radio listeners actually paid attention to what was being said rather than TV viewers who are too often distracted by the visual effects of what they are viewing. An example of this might be Trump’s looming close behind Hillary Clinton who was answering a question during the second presidential debate in St. Louis.

    Agree with John McGuire “that you did not mention what you think of Trump’s charisma or lack thereof. I believe that to be a significant shortcoming in your otherwise compelling commentary”.

    Having become intrigued with the concept of charisma, checked out
    The Dark Side of Charisma by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
    and have included subject headings. Believe other readers might find it as illuminating as I did.

    1. Charisma dilutes judgment:
    2. Charisma is addictive:
    3. Charisma disguises psychopaths:
    4. Charisma fosters collective narcissism:

    Despite these dangers, the dark side of charm is commonly overlooked. Politics is in bad need of a charisma detox, especially in the Western world. Here are three simple recommendations for upgrading to a more rational and sterilized leadership model, even if it makes poor tv and attracts very few YouTube hits (think Angela Merkel rather than Silvio Berlusconi):

    1. Select leaders using scientifically validated assessment tools, instead of relying on “chemistry” or intuition.
    2. Limit politicians’ media exposure and airtime; it is distracting and makes charismatic candidates look more competent than they actually are.
    3. Look for hidden talent — which means avoiding the charisma trap.

    In brief, charisma distracts and destructs. Technology and science have enabled us to systematize many serendipitous practices (e.g., shopping, marketing, relationships, hiring, etc.). A more mature and evolved version of politics will require a charisma detox — leadership is not a game.

  14. Laura Petruska September 26, 2017 at 8:38 am #

    Maybe Ben Franklin was right … not everyone should be given the right to vote. If good looks and pomposity get you votes instead of intelligence and experience then we are in serious trouble.

    “Today a man owns a jackass worth 50 dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?”

  15. Jan Siren September 26, 2017 at 11:30 am #

    Here I will attempt to be radical. In 2020, Republican voters tired of Trump will send delegates to the national convention who really mean business. who are there to debate and negotiate, not just to toe the party line and have a good time while they’re briefly in the public eye. Real pillars of the party – not just “favorite sons” – will find their names placed in nomination. Watch this space!


  16. David Lee Valdina September 26, 2017 at 4:21 pm #

    I think I will vote for Google in the next election.

  17. Augusto (Gus) Venegas October 3, 2017 at 2:27 am #

    Let’s hope that we don’t elect a charismatic dictator like Fidel Castro (or worst, a Hitler type). I talk of Fidel’s charisma, and magnetic personality, in my book “Memories from the Land of the In tolerant Tyrant … (-:

    Augusto (Gus) Venegas