The CNN poll immediately following the debate between vice presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence revealed how the news media’s insistence on covering personalities has distorted the electorate, or at least those who watched the debate. Viewers rated Kaine ahead on knowledge of the issues and helpfulness to his running mate, but rated Pence ahead on likeability. And who did the viewers say won the overall debate? Pence.
I agree that Pence was more likeable than Kaine that evening, who has too much of a Teddy bear face to be a credible attack dog. But what wasn’t likeable were Pence’s views or his tendency to duck tough questions about his running mate. Pence frequently denied that Trumpty-Dumpty had said things that all the journalists and much of the country have seen or heard him say. When asked about other aspects of the Trump program, Pence refused to answer the question. Regarding Russia, he essentially threw the Donald under the bus. It was a YUGE bus.
The viewers saw Pence’s prevarications and then relived them when journalists and pundits described Pence’s treatment of his running mate. That’s one reason that it wasn’t a landslide for Pence, or even a clear victory. The results were close on all questions in the CNN poll. The dominant narrative in the mainstream media was that Pence won the VP debate, but that he won it for himself, not for the top of his ticket. But it was close. Almost as many non-surrogate journalists and pundits preferred Kaine as proclaimed Pence the winner. In short, Pence eked out a narrow victory over Kaine.
Likeability matters, especially for Republicans. Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush II were all elected because of their likeability, and Bush I won because he made his opponent so dislikeable. Note that outside of the military, Eisenhower didn’t know much, and both Reagan and Bush II knew very little, but that didn’t stop them because they were so darn nice and friendly.
Which brings us to the matter of facial grimaces, an affect that often mars one’s appearance or makes one’s demeanor less appealing. Pence reacted frequently to Kaine’s statements with a grimace or a smirk or sometimes a smirky grimace. No one seems to have noticed it the way they did Trump’s whimpers of a whipped bully in the first debate between the presidential candidates. No pundit discussed Pence’s facial distortions as a negative characteristic.
Yet if you watch tapes of the 2000 presidential debate, you see Al Gore make virtually the same facial expressions. Virtually all commenters said that Gore’s sighs and smirks were off-putting. The polls and pundits agreed that George W. Bush won that debate, even though he had trouble mouthing his basic messages and Gore displayed a scope of knowledge that was truly extraordinary. The journalists, led by Maureen Dowd, called Gore supercilious and smug, whereas Bush came off as a cool dude with whom it would be great to down a few. Gore’s facial expressions became part of the broader narrative of the election. The cool guy versus the awkward wonk.
When I compare old videos of Gore to Pence’s performance against Kaine, I can see little difference between the facial expressions. The same mild exasperation. The same demeaning half smile. The only difference I see is the context: Gore was scoffing at the whoppers and misinformation that Georgie was spouting, whereas Pence was scoffing at Kaine’s truthful statements. Are we to conclude that it’s all right to smirk at comments in a debate, as long as you are smirking at the truth? Can facial expressions only undercut the truth and not be used when someone is lying or portraying obvious ignorance?
Here is where the interplay of the mass media and the public becomes complicated. Both the media and the viewers thought Bush and Pence won their respective debates. Statistically valid surveys both times suggested viewers preferred the Republicans even before they experienced the onslaught of hyperventilated media nonsense.
Remember, though, that virtually every viewer has undergone indoctrination by the news media from their first moments of consciousness. The mainstream news media always has a bias to support Republicans, and has tended to skew right on many social issues and most economic and foreign policy issues except during the later stages of the Vietnam War. More significantly, the mainstream news media pushes celebrity culture to the forefront and has gradually infected election coverage with celebrity issues: personalities, insults, personal animuses, who said what to whom, lifestyles, personal scandals, verbal or physical faux pas and, front and center, likeability. The media tells us time and time again to value likeability above substance. Think of the pejorative nature of the language used to describe issues-oriented candidates: wonks, nerds.
Likeability or the lack thereof has become one of the major issues of the campaign. The news media has created one of the greatest false comparisons in the history of human rhetoric: the likeability levels of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. All the polls show both candidates at historically low levels of likeability for presidential candidates. Substantial numbers of voters for both candidates say they are holding their noses and voting against the other candidate.
So where’s the false comparison? It has to do with the reasons for Hillary’s lack of likeability: they are all false. When she was Secretary of State, she was perhaps the most well-liked person in the country, and certainly in the world. She was well-liked as a Senator. What changed the perceptions of many Americans was the constant barrage in the mass media of phony and trumped-up scandals like Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation and her emails, and the constant harping of Republicans depicting her as a she-devil of deception and corruption. Maureen Dowd and other pundits who prefer personality profiles to issues analysis fed a false description of Hillary as cold, distant, vindictive and uncaring. Pundits would say these things and write them, but like the so-called scandals in her emails and the foundation, no one could ever give an example. In many cases, Hillary was blamed for things that her peers also did, even after she admitted a mistake and others did not. Sexism entered into the equation, too, as society tends to find fault in women for traits such as aggressiveness and tenaciousness that they find admirable in men.
Thus, as far as likeability goes, the race is between someone who is truly despicable and someone who the media has depicted as unlikeable.
The 2000 election shows the negative ramifications of voting on likeability, and some, including this writer, would say the 1980 election demonstrated it as well. The country would be on safer ground if we forget about likeability and judged the candidates on some real criteria, such as stand on issues, details in programs, knowledge of the facts, past experience, honesty of statements and vision for the future.