Bernie Sanders was the most liked candidate in the 2016 primary race. Donald Trump was the least liked candidate in the 2016 primary race. Conventional wisdom tells us that when we’re voting for a presidential candidate, we’re choosing the person we want to have a beer with, or the guy who shows up on late-night television playing the saxophone. We think we want someone likable. And yet Trump is the GOP nominee, and Sanders conceded to Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention — a candidate who, like Trump, is historically disliked. What’s going on?
Well, electing politicians is hard. It takes months, costs billions, and doesn’t work the way many of us think it does. For example, likability doesn’t determine who wins or who loses a presidential primary or election.
Of course, there are a bunch of factors that explain why Trump had success and Sanders didn’t. Sanders didn’t go after black voters, while Trump ignored standard conservative messaging. Sanders lost the South, and Trump didn’t. Sanders didn’t appeal to older Democrats (who are more likely to vote but less likely to talk about it — meaning that we know less about how they feel about either Clinton or Sanders), and Trump managed to win older (and whiter) former Democrats.
It’s not that being well-liked is completely unimportant. We don’t elect party platforms, after all. We don’t have nominating conventions for party platforms, or have posters of party platforms on our office walls, or expect party platforms to work the press line and kiss a few babies. Likability — or “favorability” — can be useful for deciding who runs (and gets the furthest) and who doesn’t. In 2008, Obama and McCain were both among the best-liked candidates in the general election — a trait that, along with solid campaign strategies, helped them win their primaries. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush led both Al Gore and John Kerry in favorability.
But it can also be deceptive. Likability is subjective, for one thing. Let’s not forget that for Clinton, gender adds an extra challenge; it’s hard to be pragmatic when, as a woman, that trait is so often dismissed as “cold” or “calculating.” Historically, being well-liked hasn’t guaranteed victory either. Michael Dukakis led George H.W. Bush in favorability by a wide margin until August of 1988, and then lost three months later. He didn’t get less likable — he just ran a bad campaign that was unable to engage any part of the electorate. It’s the campaign that ultimately matters, and, a lot of times, the person behind it can be second banana.
That explains where we are, with two candidates among the most “unlikable” in electoral history. Trump wants Russia to hack his opponent’s emails, while Clinton was so worried about staying connected that she used a hackable Blackberry in the State Department. And Sanders supporters are marching in the streets because they’re learning that you can’t always get what you want, and, sometimes, the most likable candidate in this election doesn’t win the nomination for president.