The Trouble with Vision: Obama, Clinton and America's Sensing Majority

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are so different-so say their supporters, and so say political commentators. The nature of their differences depends on whom you ask. Does America want a candidate who is visionary and inclusive, rather than polarizing and compromised? Or does America want a candidate who is experienced and tough, rather than naïve and short on substance?

But Clinton and Obama share strong similarities as well. Both are policy wonks and idealists, graduates of elite law schools and long-committed to public service, driven by their belief in the capability of government to change things for the better. Their interests derive in part from personality. Both Clinton and Obama have a core preference for what is called "intuition" on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the world's most widely used personality sorter. According to type theory, intuitives are drawn to in ideas, patterns and possibilities. It's how they see the world. The problem for each is that only 25% of the U.S. population sees things in the same way. The 75% majority has a preference for "sensing." Sensing types are drawn to facts, details and experience. Clinton and Obama therefore have the same fundamental problem: how to communicate not simply with their supporters, but with an electorate dominated by people who interpret the world in fundamentally different ways.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is based on the theories of Karl Jung. According to type theory, all individuals share four mental processes, each of which has two possible expressions: introversion/extraversion, intuition/sensing, thinking/feeling and perceiving/judging. Type theory holds that individuals prefer one way of expressing each of these pairs, just as we tend to write with one hand rather than the other. One way feels natural and instinctive; the other, less so.

Intuitives connect with ideas; sensors connect with specifics. Both types are open to change, but they deal with it in different ways. Intuitives like newness and are drawn to change as an end in itself. Sensors favor the tried and true, and want the case for change to be laid out carefully, with achievable steps.

Barack Obama is clearly an intuitive; his language about vision and possibility are straight from the intuitive playbook. Hillary Clinton, known for a command of detail and a focus on the pragmatic, has strong sensing skills. However she is at heart an intuitive as well. Her lifetime affair with public policy and her ability to mastermind strategy strongly suggest a preference for intuition. (As I've written before, Clinton is likely an INTJ in Myers-Briggs typography.) These results are not surprising. While intuitives are a minority in the population, they dominate higher education and certain professions like law, science and journalism.

One reason that Obama and Clinton seem so different in personality is that Obama is an extravert while Clinton is likely an introvert. Extraverts get their energy from the outside world and other people. Introverts get their energy from themselves and their own space. Since extraverts express their dominant function externally, Obama freely talks about his passions. Since introverts express their dominant function internally, Clinton naturally reflects on hers.

The majority of Americans -- an estimated 75% -- have a preference for sensing, not intuition. Sensing types want to know where they stand in the big picture the intuitive types are proposing. They want to know where the beef is. They are curious about the promised land, but they'd like a map. They are interest in what they might gain, but keenly aware of what they might lose. They know that change is hard, complicated, and may turn out to be worse that what they have.

Of the two candidates, Clinton seems more attuned to the interests of sensing types. She is running on experience and knowledge. Whatever she tries to portray about her experience, it's clear that almost everyone in America has an opinion of who Hillary Clinton is. This is both a plus and a minus. Her sensing supporters respect her capabilities, experience and battle scars. On the other hand, her sensing detractors are unlikely to change their mind, since they trust judgments arrived at over time. Clinton's challenge is to convince enough Americans to take a second look.

Obama has a different problem. His candidacy urges the American electorate to find the intuitive within -- to access an innate yearning for hope, harmony and progress. Because his idealism has whipped up such strong enthusiasm among his core supporters, it's easy to assume that the same will occur with the rest of the country. This is not necessarily the case. What's inspirational to an intuitive may fall flat to a sensor. Obama's challenge is to make his candidacy real to the majority of Americans.

Intuitive types are drawn to politics because it represents the art of possibility. They tend to assume that everyone feeds off the same joy. Everyone doesn't, which is why intuitives like Al Gore and John Kerry lost to sensor George W. Bush. Whether Obama or Clinton could win the general election depends on which of these kindred souls can successfully connect with America's sensing majority.