This race was supposed to be over right now, with Obama moving victoriously on. What happened?
There are plenty of different lenses through which to view Tuesday's New Hampshire democratic primary, but as someone who teaches public speakers how to connect emotionally with their audiences, here's mine: As of yesterday, Hillary Clinton was the most likable candidate in the Democratic field. Yup, that's right. Her "choking up" performance on Monday cast her in the most sympathetic light we've ever seen her. This woman, who has spent her entire public career stoically projecting strength so she could compete in the big leagues finally showed us the warm, genuine person underneath. Women and old-line democrats were moved and showed up to vote in greater numbers than pollsters had predicted, delivering the day to Hillary.
The incident in question was certainly a remarkable sight. Hillary was asked how she perseveres, and her answer personalized her in several ways without ever making her look too vulnerable. She talked about the range of pressures on her, from the stakes in the race to the challenge of watching her weight on the trail. When her voice choked up, she got very quiet, and if you'd heard her on the radio you might have imagined she was about to cry, her face twisted in grief. But we all saw her, and she kept smiling warmly through the whole thing, showing her determination to stay positive through all her troubles. In that clip, more people saw Hillary smiling more genuinely for a longer stretch of time than has happened in the whole rest of her campaign. It was not an exuberant smile, for sure, but a real, warm smile nonetheless. Her "Chillary" image suddenly seemed like just a mask she wears to do battle with the boys.
Many in the media wondered whether this was a fatal show of weakness, the emotional female cracking under the first sign of real pressure. Others, primarily conservatives, accused her of a cynically "calculated" play for sympathy. That only makes sense if you assume she is at her core a heartless ambition machine and any show of human emotion on her part is artifice. But if you understand her as a deeply committed activist who usually hides her emotions to avoid being perceived as weak, it makes sense that she might finally choose that moment to let more of her true feelings show. That decision may well have been a "calculation," but no matter how the media spun it, we saw the emotion in those images for ourselves, and it was the real deal.
In working with public speakers, we often talk about "warmth," which is closely related to "likability." Throughout the campaign, Hillary has always seemed to do well when she allowed herself to show a little more warmth: the YouTube videos making fun of her singing, the Sopranos spoof, the "I'm Your Girl!" moment in the Chicago debate. It remains to be seen if this latest display was a one-time glimpse behind the curtain or if we will be seeing more of this warmer side of Hillary going forward.
Either way, it would be wise for Obama to take note. Throughout the campaign, he has worked hard to wring the warmth out of his image, fearing his winning grin would outshine his intellect and keep people from taking him seriously. He still almost never smiles when speaking in public -- just before or after he speaks, sure, but not while discussing matters of state, no matter how hopeful he may be about them. Lately he has been downright snippy at moments, as in his half-sarcastic quip that Hillary was "likable enough." Obama certainly has it in him to be friendly and self-effacing, to joke around with people, to connect not just as an inspiring leader but as a good, friendly guy. If he would show us more of that side of himself, it would make the thought of seeing him on TV every day for the next four years more appealing.
Hillary lost her inevitability in Iowa, and Obama's movement stalled in New Hampshire, so now they've both been brought down to earth. And now that they're down here with the rest of us, being a little more personable could be just the thing.