Ask President Trump how he’s preparing for his high-stakes debate series with Joe Biden, and he’s apt to throw up his hands in response.
“Well, I sort of prepare every day by just doing what I’m doing,” Trump told Fox News on Tuesday. “But I don’t know which Biden is going to show up.”
Trump in recent weeks has questioned his Democratic rival’s mental acuity, even leveling allegations of drug use against him.
But, regardless of those charges, says personality expert Merrick Rosenberg, the president has a point: Biden’s political persona has changed dramatically in recent months.
The grinning, garrulous, gaffe-prone Biden we came to know over his 44-year career as a senator and vice president is now a sober, deliberate presidential candidate, running a campaign to become the consoler in chief for a nation shadowed by the coronavirus and racial unrest.
“He’s probably being advised to slow himself down, both as a way to convey empathy and to be less likely to make those gaffes,” said Rosenberg, whose book “Personality Wins: Who Will Take the White House and How We Know” (Simon & Schuster), out now in paperback, explores how personality impacts our presidential elections.
“But it’s a questionable strategy,” Rosenberg said. “Because on the big stage, the big personality usually wins.”
Classification systems created by political scientists like James David Barber and Fred I. Greenstein have long been used to analyze presidents in terms of their personal character, messaging behavior and leadership style.
Rosenberg’s book adds a new twist to that body of work with a personality grid he devised in his corporate training business. His simple system links personality types with birds: the take-charge Eagle, the analytical Owl, the dynamic Parrot and the compassionate Dove.
“I asked myself, I wonder if you could use personality to predict a presidential election?” Rosenberg said. “I started working back in time, and made it all the way back to 1932.”
That year, the rise of radio heralded the age of the mass media — and the election of an Eagle president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ushered in the personality-driven era of American politics.
“Ever since, the energetic, bigger personalities of Eagles and Parrots have beaten the more reserved, soft-spoken Doves and Owls every time they’ve gone head to head,” Rosenberg said.
Donald Trump is a textbook Eagle personality: results-oriented, confident, audacious and demanding. But unlike many other Eagle presidents, Trump is a pure example of the type. “Most people are not just one style,” Rosenberg said, but a combination of dominant and secondary personality types.
Trump’s Eagle persona is untempered by any other traits, making him both highly electable and distinctly unpopular. Not for nothing was 2016 the first election in American history in which both major party candidates were disliked by a majority of the electorate: Hillary Clinton, an Owl personality, suffered the same popularity problem.
Joe Biden, in contrast, came up through the political ranks as a talkative, attention-seeking Parrot, like Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy before him.
“Biden has always had a secondary Dove side, too,” Rosenberg said, adding that this sentimental streak contributed to his nice-guy image. But age and life experiences can sometimes bring a secondary personality type to the fore. “For Biden, I think the loss of his son Beau brought out more of the Dove in him.”
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Biden’s formerly charismatic Parrot persona has faded — one reason why Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” gibes have stuck and why the former veep has had a hard time ginning up enthusiasm in his party.
This emerging Dove side could create another problem for Biden. For the past quarter century, the presidency has been held by a procession of big personalities. The trend started with Parrot Bill Clinton, who bested two Republican Owls, incumbent President George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, in 1992 and 1996. George W. Bush, an Eagle personality, also defeated Owl opponents — Al Gore and John Kerry — to win his two terms in the White House.
Then came Barack Obama, who Rosenberg identifies as an Eagle/Dove, a dominant personality within a cool, calm exterior.
“His personality was hard to place,” Rosenberg admits. But Obama’s knack for energizing crowds, despite his “no-drama” demeanor, was the telltale sign. Obama defeated an irascible Eagle candidate, John McCain, in 2008 and a detail-oriented Owl, Mitt Romney, in 2012.
“American voters clearly have a personality bias,” Rosenberg writes in his book. “They apparently prefer assertive, dominant and enthusiastic presidents over calm, analytical and policy-driven leaders.”
Jimmy Carter’s one-term victory in 1976 marked the last time Americans elected a Dove as president. Four years later, a bravura Parrot debate performance by Ronald Reagan sealed Carter’s defeat.
Most voters — more than two-thirds of them, according to one study — say they use the debates to evaluate the candidates’ personal qualities and gauge their fitness for the job. “You may call it personality; we call it image or character learning,” said Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri. “The No. 1 attribute influencing support for a candidate comes down to ‘they seem to get it’ or ‘they understand my concerns.’ It’s not so important that a candidate can spend 60 or 90 minutes spewing a stream of statistics.”
In fact, a detailed command of policy specifics can turn voters off.
In 2016, supporters of the Owlish Hillary Clinton cheered her snappy comeback in the first presidential debate when Trump, the quintessential Eagle, insulted her exhaustive preparations for their encounter.
Trump’s personality won him the 2016 election … but it could cost him reelection.
– Merrick Rosenberg
“I just left Detroit, I just left Philadelphia … I’ve been all over the place,” Trump said. “You decided to stay home.”
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” Clinton responded in mock disbelief. “And yes, I did … I think that’s a good thing.”
Clinton’s meticulous prep didn’t wow the voters Trump had traveled to see in Michigan and Pennsylvania. He won both states in his presidential victory that November.
“We’ve found that it’s generally the candidate who cites the most facts and figures in their debate performance that is perceived by voters to be the loser of a presidential debate,” McKinney said.
This year’s debates, then, will give Biden a chance to lock down his polling lead and pump up the Democratic base with an engaging Parrot performance — if he can pull it off.
“Historically, Biden’s weakness has been that he speaks before he thinks,” Rosenberg said. “That’s a very Parrot thing to do — they talk so quickly they get ahead of themselves — and gaffes are the result.
“It seems to me that the Democrats have doubled down on Biden’s inner Dove in this campaign,” he continued. “Look at how he talks about ‘the soul of the nation’ — he’s trying to set up a contrast to Trump’s blunt directness.”
If Biden’s Dove side remains dominant, the result will be a presidential matchup unlike any we have seen before. Never in modern history has a likable but low-voltage Dove competed against a commanding, aggressive Eagle.
“This election reminds me of 1980,” said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina. “Jimmy Carter had high negatives, and people were open to voting for someone else. In their debate, Ronald Reagan came across as a steady, reassuring figure.
“I think Biden has a similar challenge now,” Pearce said. “People are asking, ‘Can I trust this guy with that power?’ So I think they’ll want to see some toughness along with the empathy.”
Meanwhile, Trump is eager to go on the attack. But in his thirst for combat, the president may have erred by laying on the insults too thick and too soon.
“It’s typical ahead of the first debate to try to lower expectations for yourself and heighten expectations of your opponent, but Trump has been doing just the opposite,” McKinney said. “By calling into question Joe Biden’s cognitive abilities and stamina, Trump may end up helping Biden on the debate stage.”
“People will be watching Biden to see if he can put a sentence together, can he perform and sound sensible,” agreed Pearce.
If current polling holds and Trump is defeated, it will be a first. In all of US history, according to Rosenberg’s analysis, no Eagle incumbent has ever lost a reelection bid.
“If that’s what happens, the lesson will be that personality wins, but personality also loses,” Rosenberg said. “If you overuse your personality, it can become a weakness. Trump’s personality won him the 2016 election as a charismatic leader. But it could cost him reelection in 2020 because he pushed it into the red zone.”
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