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After 34 elections, still thinking about how people vote

Like any American who cares about this country, I have a deep interest in the results of this election. But as a politician (I think one never really retires from that job), I take a professional interest, as well. Not only for policy or partisan concerns, but because I’m always interested in how people make up their minds on how to vote.
This is an occupational hazard, I think. I was on the ballot 34 times over the course of my career and have spent a lot of time thinking about why people vote as they do. To be sure, we each have our own reasons for where we come down: sometimes based on policy preferences, sometimes because projects we care about will be advanced by voting a certain way, sometimes because there’s one issue we care about above all others. Still, I think there’s one key factor that doesn’t get taken as seriously as it should: likability.
We’ve all heard this notion expressed as, “Who’d you rather have a beer with?” Or, as a group of Democratic women who were planning to vote for Ronald Reagan once explained, they liked the unfailingly gracious and courteous way he treated his wife, Nancy.
This is not frivolous. I’d argue, in fact, that likability is actually a complex decision. We tend, for instance, to like people who are positive, constructive, and forward-looking, and who enunciate or profess a feeling of hope. The Rev. Jesse Jackson used to have a phrase he used, “Keep hope alive.” Whatever you thought about his politics, that optimistic, forward-looking view appealed to a lot of people.
We also, whether we know it or not, pay attention to authenticity. It’s a favorite word in politics these days, but I think it’s always been the case that we want candidates who are not fake and who give you a sense of a genuine personality undergirding their public persona. We know it intuitively, and it plays a role in whether or not we like someone.
We want officeholders we can trust, not people who jump all over, saying one thing one day and another the next. There’s a policy element to all this, as well, in that we like people who have views and values we can relate to. Or, to put it another way, we don’t favor candidates whose values are alien to ours. Nobody fits our likes and dislikes perfectly, but we make judgments on candidates based on whether they more closely align with our values than the other candidate does.
We also judge likability by whether or not we think a candidate is going to serve our interests. We evaluate them on whether they hold roughly the same goals and interests we do, and if so, we’re much more likely to support them. Which is also why we want our candidates to be reliable and steady in their views. We want officeholders we can trust, not people who jump all over, saying one thing one day and another the next.
I think Americans also prefer candidates who display a basic sense of honesty and decency, who possess a strong moral compass, and who show compassion for people who are struggling in their lives. This does not mean we always vote for them – political circumstances or straight-on political calculation can get in the way – but I believe that for most Americans, those qualities matter a great deal.
Clearly, a lot goes into whether or not a candidate is likable, and one voter’s gut sense will differ from another’s. But I can tell you that right now, candidates for office all over the country are focused on this question.
Campaigning is a matter of going from one group to another – sometimes small, sometimes large – and the question always on your mind is how you appeal to this group or person, and how you make yourself likable to them. In the wake of the election, the winners will be patting themselves on the back for having figured it out.
And the losers will be left wondering how they might have behaved differently… and been more likable.

Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.