Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

The Mystery of Political Charisma

| May 6, 2008

The press tells us that Barack Obama has "charisma," the special power of a person to inspire fascination and loyalty. But does charisma originate in the individual, in the followers, or in the situation? Academic studies say all three.

Charisma proves surprisingly hard to identify in advance. A survey by the psychologist Boas Shamir concluded that "relatively little" is known about who charismatic leaders are. Dick Morris, the political consultant, reports that in his experience, "charisma is the most elusive of political traits because it doesn't exist in reality; only in our perception once a candidate has made it by hard work and good issues." Similarly, the business press has described many CEOs as "charismatic" when things go well, only to withdraw the label after the executives fail to make their numbers.

Political scientists have tried to create charisma scales that predict votes or presidential ratings, but they have not proven fruitful. John F. Kennedy is often described as charismatic, but obviously not for everyone. He failed to capture a majority of the popular vote in his 1960 presidential election, and his ratings varied during his presidency. Lyndon Johnson lamented that he lacked charisma. That was true of his relations with the broad public, but he could be magnetic and overwhelming in personal contacts. One careful study of presidential rhetoric by political scientist George C. Edwards found that even such famed orators as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan could not count on charisma alone to pass their programs.

Charisma is more easily identified after the fact. In that sense, the concept is circular and a little like ancient Chinese emperors, who had "the mandate of heaven." They were seen to have a mandate if they ruled, but to have lost that mandate if they were overthrown.

Similarly, success is often used to prove — after the fact — that a modern political leader has charisma. It is much harder to use charisma to predict who will be a successful leader.

Followers are more likely to attribute charisma to leaders when they feel a strong need for change, often in the context of a personal, organizational or social crisis. For example, the British public did not see Winston Churchill as a charismatic leader in 1939, but a year later, his vision, confidence and communications skills made him charismatic in the eyes of the British people, given the anxieties they felt after the fall of France to the Nazis and the Dunkirk evacuation. Yet by 1945, when the public turned from winning the war to building the welfare state, Churchill was voted out of office. His charisma did not predict his defeat. The change in voters' needs was a better predictor.

In practice, the word charisma is a vague synonym for "personal magnetism." People vary in their ability to attract others, and their attraction depends in part on inherent traits, in part on learned skills, and in part on social context. Some dimensions of attraction, such as appearances and nonverbal communication, can be tested. Various studies show that people who are rated as attractive are treated more favorably than unattractive people. One study finds a handsome man enjoys an edge over an ugly rival that is worth 6%–8% of the vote. For women, the edge is close to 10 points.

Nonverbal signals account for a major part of human communications, and simple experiments have shown that some people communicate nonverbally better than others. A Princeton study found that when people were shown images of two candidates in unfamiliar elections, they could predict the winners seven times out of 10. And a similar Harvard study that showed people 10-second silent video clips in 58 elections found their guesses better at predicting outcomes than general economic conditions, which are often regarded as a strong indicator.

In the end, Barack Obama's charisma is in the eyes of his followers. Voters should be aware that charisma tells them something about a candidate, but even more about themselves, the mood of the country, and their desire for change.

Mr. Nye, a visiting professor at Oxford University, serves on the board of directors of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is author of the recently published "The Powers to Lead" (Oxford University Press).

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr..“The Mystery of Political Charisma.” The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2008.