Four years ago a candidate with the unlikely name of Barack Obama swept the imagination of the country with his soaring rhetoric and promises of hope and change. We elected him president. Today we are much more chastened as a nation as the economic crisis seems to drag along, Congress does not appear to have its act together and foreign policy challenges loom on the horizon.
Will the admittedly frayed charisma of Obama still hold sway or will Romney’s promises of fixing the economy prompt voters to look to him for new leadership?
In 1996 I was eagerly following the U.S. presidential election because of my deep interest in studying charismatic leadership in various contexts. Bill Clinton was the incumbent president and Bob Dole was his Republican challenger. The media coined an unflattering phrase describing Bob Dole as “charismatically challenged.” It got me wondering whether there was something akin to objective charisma where everybody agreed that a candidate either had charisma or lacked it. It struck me, however, that each candidate may seem like a charismatic leader to his own base either because they strongly identify with his values or he effectively embodies their values.
My co-authors and I designed a study to test that theory empirically. We found that Democrats saw Bill Clinton as a significantly more charismatic leader than Bob Dole and Republicans saw Dole as significantly more charismatic than Clinton, respectively. These perceptions also influenced their actual voting behavior in favor of the candidate they saw as a charismatic leader. We found the same pattern of results in the 2000 (Bush-Gore), 2004 (Bush-Kerry) and 2008 (Obama-McCain) elections.
The impact of charisma, however, was particularly relevant when the country faced a crisis of some sort, such as the post-9/11 wars, the great recession). With each election study, we added further layers of complexity — like personality, trust in the leader and authentic leadership — to assess the relative impact of various factors on voting behavior.
As some political analysts and historians have observed, we are a Red-Blue country these days and the election is likely to be very close. A few swing states will probably decide the election. In the political science arena, there is a strong tradition of studying the impact of the economy on the presidential elections. It has often shown itself to be one of the most important determinants of election outcomes. But which economy will matter more and for whom? Will it be the state of the national economy or will it be the pocketbook economy - how it affects you and your family? Will the so called 99 percent see it the s - “It’s the economy stupid”? That mantra (despite the October jobs report) may very well come back to haunt President Obama.
In the corporate context, following the collapse of iconic organizations and their leaders — like Enron and Lehman Brothers — there has been a tendency in recent years to discount the impact of larger-than-life charismatic leaders and instead value servant and authentic leadership behaviors, which emphasize the importance of being true to one's values and serving others. In the political context, I do believe that voters often hanker for a messianic leader who can transform lives and the nation in the process.
Max Weber, the German sociologist, wrote about the divine gift of charisma which was validated by repeated successes. On Nov. 6, it will be interesting to see if President Obama's charisma has diminished with the somewhat lackluster performance with the economy and Governor Romney is seen as the medicine for what ails the nation. Perhaps the question will be: Is it charisma or is it still the economy stupid?
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This guest editorial is part of a new monthly series showcasing the insight and expertise of CSUSM’s distinguished faculty.
Dr. Rajnandini (Raj) Pillai is a professor of management in the College of Business Administration at CSUSM and the founding executive director of the University’s Center for Leadership Innovation and Mentorship Building (CLIMB). A renowned expert on charismatic and transformational leadership, Pillai’s extensive research has been published in leading national and international journals. Her research includes studies on the impact of charismatic leadership and its role in presidential elections.