The desire for academics and the public to understand the personality of those who govern is not a recent phenomenon. However, with the increased ‘personalisation’ of politics in recent years, a greater emphasis has been placed on the specific personalists of politicians and leaders.
This increased emphasis has given rise to a plethora of subsidiary questions regarding the role of personality in politics, one of the most salient being whether personality can lead to political success.
The Big Five personality traits of neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness have underpinned much of the recent political psychology analysis. The analysis of these traits in individuals can predict behaviour in general, even in political realms, therefore, it is a reasonable assumption to make that such traits can indicate or lead to political success.
The specific traits of politicians can have a sizable impact on their success in elections. In 2000, 27% of American voters claim they voted for the presidential candidate primarily on their character and personality.
Within the Big Five traits, one sees a clear correlation between a candidate exhibiting certain traits and electoral victory. Particularly with extraversion, as there is necessity for a willingness and ability to be energetic and personable during a campaign to demonstrate to voters a candidate has the stamina and determination to lead their country.
Extraversion is an important tool for a political candidate as it can sway undecided voters through the power of a candidate’s enthusiasm, evoking an almost band-wagon-like reaction in potential voters. Such success through extraverted political behaviour can be seen in the 2008 Spanish general election, where the overt enthusiasm and confidence of Jose Zapatero propelled him to victory with one of the largest vote shares in its party’s history.
Those high in agreeableness also perform well in elections because a politician’s agreeable nature evokes feelings of community and trust that can take advantage of the emotional undertones of elections. Further, those who are more agreeable are more likely to handle interpersonal interactions on the campaign trail in a more authentic and relatable way, thus making voters more likely to trust them with higher office.
This effect could be seen in the 1960 US Presidential election, as John F Kennedy was perceived to be very agreeable due to his excellent interpersonal skills, whereas Nixon was less adept at interpersonal interactions, subsequently losing the election.
More broadly, the general impression that a politician’s personality gives to a voter can have a significant impact on the success of that politician in an election. With politics, parties and governments becoming more about the individual, personalities that are confident, self-assured and relaxed are very important.
One of the most notable exemplifications of these characteristics in recent years is Tony Blair, whose confidence and well-balanced persona aided his landslide victory in 1997 after Labour had been out of office for almost twenty years.
In addition, elections can often be decided by the candidate who displays what Bruce Mazlish calls a ‘revolutionary personality’, a personality that projects the capacity or inclinations for dramatic change. This personality evokes strong emotional and political reactions in voters who are either disillusioned with the political process or frustrated with the current political dynamic, or both.
As such, those with the revolutionary personality are far more likely to obtain electoral success, as seen with Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, running on a platform of ‘Change’ against a more tempered and conservative (in every way) Mitt Romney.
Specific personality traits also lead to political success with regards to longevity in a politician’s career. Primarily, this is evident in the role of agreeableness, as lower levels of agreeableness lead to longer careers in legislatures for politicians.
This is likely due to politicians with low levels of agreeableness being less likely to sacrifice their own careers for the benefit of their party, enabling them to pursue and sustain their own political career instead of prioritising those of others. It has also been found that those low in agreeableness have a lower tendency to internalise criticism or be discouraged by obstacles encountered during a political career, with this resilience enabling a longer career as they are able to function at the highest level and remain unmoved by external negativity.
In addition, conscientiousness can also lead to a longer political career as it enables one to be persistent, organised and forward-thinking, characteristics one needs in order to successfully plan for a long-term career in politics. Conscientiousness also facilitates longer political careers as political events, sentiments and policies change dramatically over time, as such, the ability to either foresee such changes or adapt with them to an appropriate degree is useful and necessary.
Attaining High-Level Position
Personality can lead to attaining high-level position in politics such as high-ranking members of the legislature and leadership roles within the party and the government. Primarily, this is born out in the effects of having high levels of conscientiousness and extraversion leading to politicians being more likely to achieve leadership positions.
This is due to these two traits enabling a politician to not only calculate the measures necessary to ascend within the party to such positions, but it also leads to politicians having the charisma and enthusiasm that convinces those within their party that they should move up the ranks.
Furthermore, politicians with lower levels of agreeableness also aid their ability to attain higher positions within a party as they are characteristically belligerent and determined to achieve their ambition or higher office. A prime example of with would be Donald Trump who ascended to be the Republican nominee for president precisely because he was so unagreeable, starkly juxtaposed with his competition such as Jeb Bush and John Kasich who, despite being formidable political heavyweights, were seen as too agreeable and weak in comparison to Trump.
In addition, a necessary personality trait, or lack thereof, for attaining high-level positions in politics is a low level of neuroticism. This is because the emotional stability associated with low neuroticism and the ability to maintain a consistent mental state is elemental to obtaining the respect of the politician’s peers and enable an ascension to a higher position in their party. This is evidenced by leaders such as President Lyndon Johnson and Prime Minister Winston Churchill being admired by their political peers due to their decisiveness and assertiveness, catalysing their successful political rise.
Personality Has Little/No Impact
Conversely, there are reasonable contradictions to the findings that personality does lead to political success. Other factors far outweigh the importance of the Big Five such as the importance of the rhetoric used by politicians.
Rhetoric has been employed since the days of Julius Caesar and can be seen as far more important in leading to political success than Big Five traits or broader elements of personality. Scholars like Annelen Stenbakken postulate that rhetoric coupled with the ability of a leader to convey their ideological position in a convincing and persuasive way supersedes personality traits in indicating political success.
It has also been argued that personality does not lead to political success due to the role that other internal factors have. Specifically, the importance of political skill and the knowledge of how to navigate one’s way through the political system.
These political skills involve the ability to select the correct team of advisors as well as tactically choose the appropriate policies and agenda to fit the current political climate. Similarly, other human capital attributes such as training, work experience and education have been found to be instrumental in progression of a political career, far more so than personality traits, particularly as these elements are far more objectively measurable.
In addition, other factors related to the individual politicians have been argued to have a far larger impact on political success than their personality. Factors such as gender, as this often implicitly informs a voter’s choice regarding a politician’s strengths and aptitude for the role.
A politician’s age has also been found to influence their ability to advance their career as, in the minds of voters, age is directly correlated with experience and political aptitude, making older politicians more likely to advance than younger ones regardless of personality.
Further, the significance of perceived integrity and conduct is also impactful in the potential success of a politician’s career. It has been found that voters make judgements on a candidate’s eligibility for office based on their perceived levels of integrity and dishonesty, with those displaying less integrity less likely to advance in their careers.
This could be seen in the case of Gerald Ford, he was accepted by the public as Vice President to President Nixon despite not being elected as such due to his high levels of integrity and honesty. However, his subsequent pardon of Nixon after the Watergate Scandal harmed this perception and laid the groundwork for Jimmy Carters election in 1976.
It should also be noted that in modern day politics, it is more important to focus on the influence of the media as it plays a significantly large part in shaping the political options of its viewers as well as influencing the politicians who receive the most attention.
Due to the rising influence of the media, an authentic personality is no longer as important and is secondary to the ability to feign attributes for a short period of time in order to persuade the public you are the type of politician they like.
It has also been shown that political candidates who appear more in the media are more likely to succeed in their respective endeavour as the increased exposure increases the likelihood of prospective voters to support for them. This is in part due to a Darwinian culture of politics wherein it is perceived that the best will succeed, therefore, those receiving the most attention must be the most qualified for the job and wroth of support.
The primary conclusion one can draw from this analysis is that personality does lead to at least some forms of political success. However, a more nuanced and holistic conclusion should be stipulated that, although personality does lead to political success, it should not be taken in isolation.
Personality can be seen to directly lead to success in the metrics set out at the start of this essay, but other factors such as personal skills, institutional support and media attention can also play a significant role.
Author: Nathan Irwin
Nathan is a Politics and International Relations student at the University of Durham.