TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Presidential candidates are like a good Bordeaux, says Samuel Popkin, who has studied them (the candidates, that is). Winemakers use every cutting-edge scientific technique to perfect wines for modern palates. Then they sell them as the authentic product of age-old values and unchanging practice.
So, too, for modern candidates. Authenticity is essential. Once you can package that, the rest is easy.
"How can a candidate exemplify authenticity and sincerity when they constantly confer with pollsters, writers and media experts to 'decide' what they truly mean?" asks Popkin, an adviser to several Democratic presidential candidates and a professor of Political Science at the University of California in San Diego.
Nowhere during a campaign does this dilemma come across more directly than political conventions, where supporters, family and finally the candidate himself speak "from the heart" while following a carefully managed script on a heavily produced stage to one of the largest audiences they will ever have.
In an age of something called reality TV — of a public that demands to be brought inside to see the unscripted choice of dancing stars and American idols — how can a political leader communicate authenticity when the very act of communicating requires authenticity-crushing packaging?
David Shimkin, a delegate from New York, says he admires New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie because "he doesn't seem to have a filter." That frankness is a big part of how he became a Republican star and won the coveted keynote address. But Christie, who usually speaks off the cuff, gave his keynote from a text, edited by the Romney campaign, to make sure he stayed on message and on time.
Christie said his challenge, in fact, was "to be natural" in what for him (and most people) was an unnatural setting.
After a political generation that put great stock on production values in political presentation, there is a rump movement to reinvent conventions to make them less produced. But when it comes to authenticity, the production values are only the beginning of what candidates need to worry about.
LIKE MODERN warfare, presidential campaigns are asymmetrical, says Popkin, whose new book, "The Candidate," examines what it takes to win — and hold — the White House. Popkin and his colleague Matt Childers studied every presidential campaign from 1952 to 2004 and found a clear pattern.
Incumbents are judged by what they have done or failed to do, while challengers are measured by who they are and their vision of what needs to be done.
This would appear to be a problem for both sides in this election.
Next week in Charlotte, President Barack Obama, who was effective as a candidate when the question was who he was and what he would do, will have to explain why he should get another term when unemployment is 8.3 percent. But this week Romney, who has a track record he loves to talk about, will have to explain who he is and what he would do.
His staff admits that isn't exactly his thing.
Romney "doesn't feel comfortable talking about himself. He's just not built that way," said Neil Newhouse, a Romney polltaker. Instead, "what you'll see," said Newhouse, "is other people talking about him and filling in the blanks."
Foremost among these representatives was his wife, Ann, who has been working hard to introduce voters to her marriage and her husband. This included her speech to the convention as well as several television appearances. In one, she described in some detail her miscarriages.
In this, she follows a recent tradition of providing what some might consider too much information. John Edwards cried for his dead child. Al Gore kissed his wife Tipper, perhaps a bit too passionately (and also did the Macarena from the podium, perhaps not quite passionately enough). And Michelle Obama spoke of her husband's bad breath.
Why do they do this? Because authenticity matters, and yet it is a fuzzy concept. So knowing how to demonstrate it is tricky.
"Authenticity is a claim, not a fact. And the candidate must persuade people the claim is true," Popkin says. For some voters, personal qualities are the deciding factor. Asked what one factor would most sway their decision about whom to support in November, 16 percent of persuadable voters in an AP-GfK poll cited some form of authenticity — such as honesty, sticking to positions, accountability or values. That ranks it as the most important candidate attribute and ahead of most issues.
"I think I'm like most Americans. I'm very excited to learn more about him as the man, as the dad, as the husband," says North Carolina delegate Donna Williams. "To me, I think that tells a lot about a person and their character as far as what they've done in their life."
BUT EVEN for voters who say they put issues first, personal qualities matter. For example, Popkin notes that a candidate can change his mind — the dreaded flip-flop — so long as voters believe the candidate's explanation. Put another way, a candidate can change position but not principles.
While log cabins and coonskin hats were part of American politics from the republic's earliest decades, the intense focus on the personal is not a tradition.
"It is a fairly recent thing that we expect political leaders to drone on about their life stories in these major speeches," says Michael Waldman, a former speech writer for President Clinton.
"Kennedy conveyed who he was by talking about the New Frontier at Los Angeles in 1960, not by dramatically recounting PT-109. Roosevelt talked about the New Deal and would have been aghast at the idea that he should talk about how polio shaped his sensibility."
But something about our modern culture has created an appetite for personal information. "Authenticity is overrated as a virtue for leaders," Waldman says. "It's a peculiar aspect of American politics, since we combine the head of government and the head of state."
Nomiki Konst, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for congress in Arizona, sees the real problem as this: Modern politics has been peddling what she calls "perfectly constructed authentic candidates." Her phrase conjures the image of Chauncey Gardner, the fictional character who knew nothing and said little but, by just "Being There," became the vessel for everyone's dreams and beliefs, ultimately becoming president.
Voters, says Konst, are really yearning for candidates who are willing to lead without the constant fear of offending constituents or fundraisers. "When you're in a crisis, no amount of data mining, polling and market research will get you out of that crisis," she said. And boldness? That, she says, would be real authenticity.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Michael Oreskes is senior managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press. Reach him at moreskes(at)ap.org.
- Politics & Government