Presidential Candidacy and Personality
by Sarah Russin

Scrolling through Facebook recently, I’ve noticed a pretty common theme among political posts. So many people seem to be asking the same question: How did these candidates manage to stay in the race this long? Unsurprisingly, this year’s presidential race has continually sparked discussion on the personality of the potential leaders of our country. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have rich histories as public figures, and the ease with which anyone can access information about their past has opened up a wealth of discussion on how the facets of their personalities over their respective careers could be indicative of their future decisions. Mapping the narratives and personalities of previous presidents and our current candidates points to one (arguably frightening) question: How much of the presidential race is really just performance?

Before we dive into Clinton and Trump, consider how other presidents behaved and what that says about their personalities. Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams has delved deep into the personalities of some previous presidents such as, for example, George W. Bush. In his book The Art and Science of Personality Development, McAdams asserts Bush’s high extraversion and low openness to experience were an arguably deathly combination for the presidency. His “us-against-them” mentality and his reluctance to second guess his gut instincts all point to low openness that McAdams notes was arguably an “obstacle to compromise and peace making” (p. 228). His extraversion, meanwhile, made him appear bold, sociable, exciting, and positive. All things that perhaps we look for in our candidates, yes? Bush’s extraversion helped him give a great performance as a candidate (and throughout his presidency), appearing as someone you, essentially, wouldn’t mind inviting over for dinner. Is it possible that his election came down to that? A closer look at this year’s candidates may also indicate that performance is key.

So, let’s talk about Hillary Clinton’s personality. A 2008 presentation by Trey Fitch and Jennifer Marshall[1] claimed that Hillary, while extraverted in some ways, expresses it differently than Bush. Less of a performer, Clinton is more of a “goal oriented extravert” who is likely to be involved in groups that are “more functional than social” (7). Fitch and Marshall also call her conscientious as opposed to rash, and note that while she is slow to take action, the actions she does take are well thought out. An in depth look at Clinton’s personality makes her seem like a good candidate, right? Why then, do so many people seem to dislike her? Florida Atlantic University professor Ryne Sherman points out a vital reason in his Psychology Today article on “The Personality of Hillary Clinton”.[2] He writes:

She is not particularly socially skilled (compared to other politicians) and would undoubtedly rather people focus on her service record rather than her on stage performances. While she has many personality strengths that would make her an effective leader, she lacks in charisma and excitement that many look for when choosing leaders.

Now, who do we know that doesn’t lack that excitement? This brings us to the personality of Donald Trump.

Dan McAdams wrote a piece on Donald Trump for The Atlantic back in June and noted his “sky-high extraversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness.” Moreover, his narcissism — excessive admiration for himself — is consistently seen with his historical and contemporary ploys for attention. McAdams explains how narcissists “come across as charming, witty, and charismatic upon initial acquaintance,” and notes how “They can attain high levels of popularity and esteem.” However, he also mentions that this popularity is often short term. Have people been buying into Trump’s performances without considering the long-term consequences of having to live with him as president? That’s not to say that Trump is incapable of making good decisions. Indeed, McAdams asserts that Trump is not as low in levels of openness as Bush was. He may actually be more careful, ultimately, with his decision making and could be more flexible, as well. On a day to day basis, though, I personally see little commentary on Trump’s personality outside of his acting the part of the attention grabbing candidate. Similarly, I see little commentary on Clinton’s service and more on her on stage appearances that lack warmth and charisma. All this to say: Do we put too much stock in the traits that make an interesting candidate and undervalue the traits that make a strong president?

By this, I don’t mean to say that every person who is low on openness and high on extraversion is going to be incapable of compromise. Nor are all narcissists impulsive about consequential decisions. The complexity of personality makes it very difficult to predict behavior. And yet, this is what the voting public must do — predict the ability of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump to succeed if elected president. While no one can predict the situations they might face, we do have decades of public "life narratives" to draw upon in our search for stable and consistent markers of personality.

How much do you know about your own personality? Interested in finding out more? Take our SAPA personality test and see where you fall on the Big Five distributions!

[1] Read more here: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED501227.pdf
[2] You can read more of what Sherman has to say here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-situation-lab/201610/the-personality-hillary-clinton#_=_
[3] Read more about McAdams assessment of Trump here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/

This page last modified on October 31st, 2016.