Fifteen years ago, I was asked to manage my first major political campaign, for a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois who was personable and had a gleaming biography, as well the ability to raise plenty of money. Gery Chico had served as chief of staff to the mayor of Chicago, and both President Bill Clinton and the Chicago Tribune had credited him with leading a dramatic turnaround of Chicago’s public schools. Though a first-time candidate, he’d raised an astounding $4 million dollars.
When I asked his media consultant to gauge his chances, however, I was surprised by his response. “I can’t really answer that yet,” he said. “I have to get him looking into a camera. I have to see how he comes through the lens.”
Ever since a young and fresh-looking JFK defeated a more experienced yet nervously sweat-stained Vice President Richard M. Nixon in a televised debate — one that those who heard on the radio swore Nixon had won — we’ve known how important it is that a presidential aspirant be telegenic.
Since then, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, George Bush, Robert Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain and Mitt Romney all lost to an opponent who was more likable on television.
Even now, in the Internet Age, this one attribute has never seemed more determinative. In fact, we’re about to find out whether there is any limit to the deficits that being good on TV can overcome.
As in 2008, Hillary Clinton began as her party’s overwhelming favorite. But outside of a couple of debates and that marathon congressional hearing on Benghazi, her stiff and calculated TV appearances have her trailing a “Democratic-Socialist” senator from a tiny state.
The avuncular Bernard Sanders may not have Hillary’s breadth of experience, but he comes across as a real person who is truly committed to his cause. Being yourself may not seem like a difficult trick, but doing it live in front of a lens is indeed a talent.
Donald Trump, of course, has taken the TV candidacy to a whole new level. Yes, a large slice of the GOP electorate wants a confident tough-guy more than they want a knowledgeable candidate. But without TV, Trump would be nowhere.
The camera doesn’t lie, but like a polygraph, it can be fooled if you’re good enough. As “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza once said: “Remember, Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
As a former TV journalist, I can attest that most of television is manipulation — and Trump’s the master. At rallies, he crudely insults Democrats, rival Republicans, journalists and more, to the crowd’s delight. He absorbs his supporters’ anger, and reflects it right back to them. The cameras pick it all up live, beam it out to Couch-potato Nation, and the circus ringmaster’s poll numbers rise.
Trump may seem like a buffoon, but the former host of “The Apprentice” knows exactly what he’s doing. He was a TV star first and now is leveraging this talent into huge leads over opponents who’ve run through countless media training sessions.
Take Jeb Bush, who started this race as the front-runner. He’s experienced, studied, intelligent and measured. But in front of the cameras, he shrugs his shoulders and flashes nervous smiles. He’s a grown man who resembles a child when he’s standing next to Trump.
In that Senate primary campaign I ran back in 2004, my candidate lost; performing on TV just wasn’t his forte. That special aptitude belonged to one of his Democratic competitors, an Illinois state senator who crushed the entire field by pulling in 53 percent of the vote in a seven-way race.
Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama as president, he was one amazing candidate on television.
Michael Golden is the author of “Unlock Congress” and an award-winning former TV journalist.