Each time campaign season heats up, the public is on alert. They say most people vote more on character, perception, or gut feeling, i.e. who they like, than based on facts, experience, policy ideas, or other more wonky stuff. As one who's been on the outside and inside of campaigns and worked in government, I tend to believe there are basically two types of people in politics - whether they're appointed or elected. In an effort to help voters find the real deal in 2010, let's call it the crunch-splat vs. splat-crunch candidate personality test.
My junior high biology teacher, Jim Lockard, taught us the difference between animals that have exoskeletons and endoskeletons. Exoskeletons were like crabs, he said, the hard shell holding all of their soft parts together on the inside. Endoskeletons are what we have: an internal frame that soft tissue builds around. They protect a small amount of important organs, like the heart and lungs; the rest are relatively easy to permeate. The test to tell the difference, he said, was when you drop the creature, does it go "crunch-splat" when it hits the pavement, or "splat-crunch?" Gruesome, yet effective.
Hillary Clinton is a good example of crunch-splat. She's been in politics for a lifetime, as a political spouse, in the Senate, and now as Secretary of State. It took years for her to develop a crunchy protective shell, and even more years to thin it down so people can see who she really is on the inside. Now as Secretary of State, her approval ratings are finally soaring. She was never as tough on the outside as Al Gore or military leaders, but it took a long time for the public to see through the shell she constructed to defend herself.
John Edwards, sadly, morphed over time into a splat-crunch candidate. My gut told me there was something awry with him. I couldn't pinpoint it, but logic dictated that a one-term Senator with little other political experience who ran a second time for president must be motivated by hubris if he thought he had a real shot at winning. Then I saw him drinking at a political fundraiser and thought he perhaps had a little too much wine. Not presidential, but a smooth talker. A thinly veiled attempt at being authentic on the outside, when the inside had turned all crunchy from the attention. Splat-crunch.
Not everybody falls into one category or another; most are somewhere in-between, so it's difficult to identify how authentic they really are. Candidates are so over-coached on message, dragged from fundraiser to fundraiser by their campaign managers, schedulers and staffers (if their team is doing their job), that authenticity is tough to muster. That's where charisma comes in. Barack Obama has managed to balance the two, delivering masterful speeches that allow him to breathe through his armor, yet plodding steadily forward.
Then there are those rare gems who sparkle seemingly untouched by the shrouds of politics. Last week, I had the opportunity to see Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana, in action at Netroots Nation. He's a contender. A former rancher who lived nearly a decade in the Middle East, there's an air about him that says, "I'm an open book. Ask me anything." He has an unassuming nature, yet he's extremely sharp. Jackie Speier is another example of the real deal. Her protective shell evolved out of necessity, from life more than from politics. She's a brilliant legislator and a genuine listener. She's enjoyable to be around, a public servant with the public's best interests at heart. Kirsten Gillibrand is another. She lights up a room and listens genuinely. We need more like her.
Another analogy would be peanut vs. regular M&M's. What most voters want is a regular M&M, someone savvy enough to protect herself, yet easy to break through to get to the core of where she's coming from as a leader. They don't want to bite in and then discover she's a peanut M&M, with a cold, hard inside. Who are the crunch-splat vs. splat-crunch candidates in this election? Will they be called out, and will authenticity win the day? If history teaches us anything, it's that often we don't identify the cold and calculating until it's too late.
Sarah Granger advises political organizations and candidates on new media, and she is serving as BlogHer's interim political director during the 2010 election.