I’ve been following presidential elections since 1980, and I believe I’ve found the secret to predicting a winner. Using this method, I’ve accurately predicted the winners since the 2000 election, although this year is sure to test my theory. Basically, my method comes down to this:
The more likable candidate will win.
What? Were you expecting some sophisticated algorithm? I may be a geek, but I’m not Nate Silver. However, I do think likability can accurately predict the winner of a presidential race, especially in an era of massive media exposure. It’s not policy, or party, or even some pressing issue like the economy or terrorism that determines a winner. It’s likability. I call it the “Presidential Likability Index” (PLI).
And what do I mean by “likability?” Basically, it is which candidate is more likable (duh) to the average (i.e. non-partisan) voter. Of course, hard-core Republicans or hard-core Democrats don’t care about likability; they are simply going to vote for their candidate. But to the large number of people who don’t solidly identify with one party or the other, likability is the key factor in determining who will win.
Various things impact one’s likability, and it’s not always consistent. For example, Bill Clinton’s indiscretions don’t really harm his likability – they reinforce his “good ol’ boy” image – while Donald Trump’s similar indiscretions do hurt his likability. Likewise, a boring scandal like deleting emails might be more important for determining one’s suitability to be president, but it usually doesn’t change someone’s likability. The media of course influences this by how they shape the candidates and events, but very likable candidates (like Ronald Reagan) can overcome a media narrative and remain likable.
Also, another note: this is not who *I* think is likable. I personally find Bill Clinton, for example, despicable, but I realize I’m not like the average voter in that assessment.
Historical Review of the Presidential Likability Index
So let’s look at the races since 1980. My Presidential Likability Index goes from 100 (Tom Hanks-level likability) to 0 (Paris Hilton).
Ronald Reagan PLI: 90
Jimmy Carter PLI: 65
Ronald Reagan has been the most likable politician in recent times. Other than perhaps Bill Clinton, he could have beat any other candidate of the past 40 years without breaking a sweat. His genius was remaining likable even in the face of constant media demonization.
Jimmy Carter wasn’t unlikable, but at the same time, his four years of “malaise” didn’t win him any points in the PLI. But against Reagan it didn’t matter.
Ronald Reagan PLI: 90
Walter Mondale PLI: 40
Reagan didn’t lose any likability after four years in office, and Mondale was a wet fish. No wonder it was a landslide.
George H.W. Bush PLI: 55
Michael Dukakis PLI: 30
Bush 41 wasn’t exactly likable, but the Dems that year decided to nominate someone who couldn’t relate to his own mom. Game, set, match.
Bill Clinton PLI: 70
George H.W. Bush PLI: 50
Bush’s likability faded the more the country got to know him, and Clinton’s did the opposite.
Bill Clinton PLI: 90
Bob Dole PLI: 40
Honestly, one of the biggest upsets in recent presidential races is that Dole didn’t get beaten even more badly than he did. This was the height of Clinton’s likability with average voters, and Dole was a corpse. It should have been a landslide of 1984 proportions.
George W. Bush PLI: 60
Al Gore PLI: 50
Although Gore has warmed up since his defeat, in 2000 he was still looked upon as a robot, and that killed him against W, who was the prototypical “guy I’d like to have a beer with.” This was the closest PLI battle since 1980, and it was reflected in the election results.
George W. Bush PLI: 70
John Kerry PLI: 55
Although we look back and judge W’s two terms harshly (and rightly so in many ways), he actually gained in his PLI over his first term. Kerry had the whole “Vietnam Vet” thing going for him, but he just looked and acted like an arrogant Northeast liberal – not exactly likable in flyover country.
Barack Obama PLI: 70
John McCain PLI: 35
There is literally nothing likable about John McCain. His PLI is this high simply because of his POW experience, which makes people feel like they should like him. Obama, on the other hand, is able to seem like a regular, likable guy to most average voters even though he’s basically an elitist. Also, there’s probably some white guilt going on, in that whites feel like they are “supposed” to like him or risk being a racist. But Obama could have been white and still dusted McCain.
Barack Obama PLI: 80
Mitt Romney PLI: 65
Romney’s not actually an unlikable guy. The Richie McRich vibe doesn’t help him, but most people saw him as a decent human being. He still didn’t have a chance against Obama, who only increased in likability in his first four years.
2016 PLI and Prediction
Now we get to 2016, which might break the Presidential Likability Index (are negative numbers possible?). Only Dukakis comes close to being as unlikable as either Hillary or Trump, and I don’t really think it’s that close. Here is my PLI for them:
Hillary Clinton PLI: 15
Donald Trump PLI: 5
Hillary is naturally unlikable, but I think she is helped both by her daughter Chelsea, who has a high likability herself (and like everything she has in life, it’s been given to her more than she earned it), and Bill’s philandering, which makes Hillary appear more human and vulnerable.
Trump, on the other hand, is supremely unlikable. Yes, some might respect his accomplishments, but to the average voter, he is perhaps the most unlikable public figure today (Hillary might be 2nd, however).
So, based on previous elections, I’m predicting a Hillary Clinton victory come November 8th.