The key to being successful in politics is to be able to connect with voters. All politicians want people to think they are a good person who understands them. When voters feel like a politician gets them, they are more likely to vote for that politician in the fall. But how does a politician create such an impression?
Whether a person is trying to establish a social, therapeutic, or political relationship, according to psychologist Carl Rogers, a person has to do three things: they must show empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. In other words, a person must demonstrate that they understand what the other person is emotionally feeling, be honest with the other person, and accept the person. Politicians who are able to exhibit all three skills will be successful. Those who fail to do so will fail to be elected.
Empathy is key. If a voter is left with the impression that a politician does not understand how they emotionally feel about issues, they will not vote for them. A perfect example of a two-term president who exuded empathy was Bill Clinton. His famous catch phrase, “I feel your pain,” is a perfect example of how to express empathy. When he spoke with others, he appeared to truly be interested in them. The polar opposite of Bill Clinton was Michael Dukakis. In a presidential debate, Governor Dukakis was asked “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” The governor’s calm, stoic response was “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” One would imagine that a little emotion would have been shown by the governor, but he seemed indifferent to the hypothetical rape and death of his wife. Everyone in the audience was left with the same impression, if he does not care about his wife, he will definitely not care about me.
The biggest complaint about most politicians is that they are not honest or genuine. Almost everyone believes politicians are a pack of dishonest cheats and liars, because way too many politicians say one thing and then do another. One of the worst examples of this occurred when President George H. W. Bush repeatedly declared “read my lips, no new taxes.” Despite his repeated promises, he later raised taxes, which doomed him to be a one-term president. He lost because he said one thing and did another. His words did not match his actions.
In current campaigns across the Bluegrass state, genuineness continues to determine who wins elections. At this time, the brightest star in Kentucky politics and next president of the United States of America is without doubt Rand Paul. He and his father have millions of devoted supporters across the country for a simple reason, they are consistent. Both of them are firm believers in the rights of the individual and they prove this by their actions. When President Obama showed a callous disregard for due process by killing an American citizen with a drone, Sen. Paul refused to stand idly by. He rose in opposition and filibustered on the Senate floor until President Obama capitulated.
Politicians do not always have to do such grand gestures to demonstrate their sincerity; sometimes, small gestures can make a big difference. For example, Allison Ball, Republican candidate for Kentucky State Treasurer, demonstrates her enthusiasm every time she shakes a person’s hand. Her intensity is so strong, one wonders if she will crush their hand with her exuberance, but they never wonder if she really cares. Nathan Haney, the Chair of the Louisville Republican Party, also demonstrated true genuineness when he backed up his promise that the Republican Party would be active throughout all of Louisville by holding the next Republican meeting far away from their headquarters in Southwest Louisville on Dixie Highway.
While all gestures do not have to be grand, they do have to be sincere. The worst thing a politician can be is inconsistent. When politicians promise one thing and do another, they demonstrate that they are not committed to helping others. They are only interested in helping themselves. This is perfectly illustrated by Alison Lundergan Grimes, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. She claims to support the coal industry in Kentucky, but hanging out with Michelle Obama at posh fundraisers in New York City and accepting $1,000 dollars from Frances Beinecke Elston, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, really makes her appear insincere.
In politics, appearances are everything. It does not matter if a candidate has a good heart. Voters are not cardiologists; they cannot examine a politician’s heart. They can only observe their actions. Politicians who wish to win elections must demonstrate that they are genuine, empathic, and accepting of others through their actions if they wish to connect with voters.
Dr. James Gedra earned his doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has taught at the University of Findlay and Murray State University. In addition to practicing psychology, he advises political campaigns about how psychology can be implemented to improve their campaign messaging, candidate presentation, and economic issues. Dr. Gedra is the chief editor of New Voice For Politics, an online newsletter dedicated to educating 18-40 year-olds about economics.