The Deciding Factor in 2020

Is there any single deciding factor that sets apart winning presidential candidates from losers? A great platform? Peace and prosperity? A soaring stock market?

Back in 1952, there was General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s infectious grin, not to mention his official campaign button proclaiming, “I like Ike.” Contrast that with the towering intellectual aloofness of his rival, Governor Adlai Stevenson.

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Eight years later, Senator John F. Kennedy declared it was time for a new generation born in the twentieth century to get the nation moving again. His rival, and fellow World War II veteran, Richard Nixon, seemed decades older.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter, who had given a depressing speech about our nation’s “crisis of confidence,” lost in a landslide to the cheerfully optimistic  Ronald Reagan, who would make it once again “Morning in America.”

In 1992, baby boomer Bill Clinton called for generational change, beating the much older and less personally engaging President George H.W. Bush, a World War II veteran.

Modern day Presidential candidates

Sixteen years later, Clinton’s wife Hillary was locked in a very close and bitter Democratic presidential primary fight. Her rival, Barack Obama – who would go on to become the first post-baby-boom president – was asked during a presidential debate if he liked Hillary.  Obama replied that he found her “likeable enough.”

Hillary, a policy wonk, boasted that as a former First Lady, she would not need on-the-job training, having been there for those 3a.m. phone calls.  At his massive rallies, Obama inspired his followers to chant, “Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!

And finally, the relatively elderly, but still exuberant Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, promising to “make America great again,” to build “a great big beautiful wall” along our Southwestern border, and then get Mexico to pay for it.

What set apart these winning candidates and their rivals was their relentless and infectious optimism. In each case, the voters bought into it.

This is not to say that a smiling face and a credible platform are always sufficient to ensure victory. But it’s pretty hard to win the presidency without running at least a relatively joyful campaign. Indeed, the last happy warrior to lose a presidential election was New York Governor Alfred E. Smith in 1928, who was beaten by the dour Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover. Smith’s biggest mistake was his Catholicism, which was not a big hit in much of the country -- especially the South.

Looking back at all the candidates who participated in the 2016 Republican presidential debates, who stood out as someone having a great time? Obviously, it was Donald Trump. Even his personal insults were often funny, such as when he called Florida Governor Jeb Bush a “low-energy individual,” or initiated a debate with his male rivals about the relative sizes of a certain body part.

Evolution from World War II Veteran candidates

Now, looking at the group of candidates in the Democratic primary, can you identify someone who stands out as being funny, optimistic, unflappable, and youthful? Perhaps that person would be the best suited to stand up to Trump.

The large majority of the electorate has already decided whether to vote for the president or his Democratic rival. The two groups are relatively evenly split, although somewhat more Americans appear to dislike Trump than like him.

Donald Trump is a despicable human being – if indeed he can even be included in that species -- but he can be very entertaining. He is, by far, the most ill-prepared individual to have attained the presidency, but he defeated Hillary Clinton, one of the best-prepared people to ever have had a major party nomination.

Who among the Democratic candidates is the most cheerful and congenial, and consequently, the most likely to beat Trump?  When we cast our votes in the next presidential election, the winner will be Ms. or Mr. Congeniality.



About the Author

Steve Slavin
Steve Slavin has a Ph.D. in economics from NYU, and has written twenty math and economics books, including “The Great American Economy: How Inefficiency Broke It, and What We Can Do to Fix it.” The 12th edition of his introductory economics text came out in September.