The private lives of politicians

In desperation political strategists clumsily attempt to show the ‘real person’ behind their client politician.

NZ Labour Leader David Cunliffe has just tried to come across as likable. The failed leader he replaced, David Shearer, tried to humanise himself and lull voters by guitar. The failed leader before him, Phil Goff, tried it with spades and motorbikes.

The back-story tactic is not exactly wrong. What science knows about people is that we assess character and trustworthiness by past actions, and a little about the company people keep.

But it fails largely because it is used by ham-fisted strategists as a one-off tactic, not a long term strategy, and too often at the point a politician is already failing.

You can see it in my list above of successive Labour leaders: they were desperate because voters appeared not to have initially connected with them.

In response, their strategists search to quickly establish the soul of the politician that should have been established a long time ago and over a long period. Frankly, by the time you’re doing an “inside the real politician” feature story, you’ve already lost.

It doesn’t work because it’s too late, but also because it’s too obvious. We all know from our personal experience what happens when we or others try too hard to be liked – it turns people off.

In setting out to make friends we do best when we take it slowly, gradually, with keenness to connect, but without apparent effort.

More than that though – what works in trying to connect with people is being interested in them, not trying to prove yourself.  What works is asking questions and listening to them.

But at this stage in their desperation, the politician is also too busy promoting their own ideas, and the back story is more of an attempt to show the ideas originate from an authentic ‘ordinary’ person.

The personality strategy has to start when the politician starts. It can’t be introduced later.

That’s because there’s one factor that people rate more highly than history and back story, in their assessment of political character: and that’s the right now.

People judge character most strongly on what is said and done right now.  Faced with a question, threat, issue, or opportunity today, how does the politician respond? What does their response say about their attitudes, ideology, philosophy and trustworthiness?

Politicians need to establish character based on how they act today. Your hobbies, friends, family and past are interesting, but they won’t save you if today’s judgement is deemed faulty.

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