If you want to understand why the 2016 presidential election is a personality contest, I challenge you to a test. Your job is to match the adjective with the presidential candidate. Who is the first person you think of when you hear the word arrogant? Untrustworthy? Cranky? Prickly? Robotic? Folksy? Sleepy? Awkward? Abrasive? Cold?
Did you identify Donald Trump as arrogant and Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy? How about Bernie Sanders as cranky and Ted Cruz as prickly? Did you select Marco Rubio as robotic and John Kasich as folksy? And previous contenders Ben Carson as sleepy, Jeb Bush as awkward, Chris Christie as abrasive, and Carly Fiorina as cold?
Instead of focusing on policies and initiatives, people are talking about the candidates' personalities — and mostly the negative aspects, which are being tossed around like insults in a schoolyard. Besides broad-sweeping issues that each candidate cares about, how many people do you know who can describe specific policies or strategies that each candidates promotes? Many folks can't, but they pass the above personality quiz with flying colors.
Because of this, the 2016 election will be a referendum on personality more than policy. It already is.
To determine who may win, let's look at the personality styles and see how they serve the candidates. There are four main personality types that I'll describe using the analogy of four birds. They include: Eagles (direct and results-driven), Parrots (charismatic and enthusiastic), Doves (soft-spoken and harmonious), and Owls (logical and analytical). The Eagle and Owl styles are more task-oriented, while the Parrot and Dove styles are more people-oriented.
Each style can be a transformative leader. Consider past presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt (Eagle), Ronald Reagan (Parrot), Abraham Lincoln (Dove), and Thomas Jefferson (Owl). While personality did not determine their success, it did drive how they led. At a healthy level, each style can be successful. However, when we overuse our strengths, they become our weaknesses. This is what has happened to the 2016 candidates, and it's having a deep impact on election results.
The Eagle's directness and candor can become blunt, insensitive, and even hurtful. Donald Trump has clearly turned up the dial on his Eagle energy. This has also been true for Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina. However, Trump has soared above these other candidates in the polls. His attacks are characteristic of an Eagle in overuse mode, but he attacks with the joviality and enthusiasm of a Parrot . . . and this is his secret sauce.
Have you ever noticed how bad things don't stick to Parrots? For example, consider two Parrot presidents from the past: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan was called "the Teflon President" because nothing stuck to him, and Clinton rebounded from the scandals of his presidency.
In a similar fashion, Trump seems to understand that he can be abrasive, as long as he delivers his comments with a smile and charisma. Trump's comment about being able to shoot someone without losing voters wasn't much of an exaggeration. The overuse of Eagle energy has doomed many candidates this year, but Trump has found a way around it.
While Trump adds in the people-oriented Parrot, Cruz is not driven by either people-oriented style. It is widely reported that he doesn't have many friends in Congress, with his cold and detached personality being cited as the source of his disconnect with others.
Bernie Sanders has also found a way to soften his Eagle energy by adding a bit of the Dove style. Recall how Sanders used the word "we" more than "I" in his New Hampshire victory speech? Remember when he was unwilling to attack Clinton over the email scandal? His ability to soften his Eagle energy has given him the ability to tap into the energy of the Dove, which has humanized him and made him more likeable.
Next up, we have the Owls. Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio typify this style. They're classic examples of candidates who focus on policy initiatives and share statistics to make their point. They tend to do well in prepared talks but falter when they have to improvise. This has negatively affected Rubio, who was called out by Christie for reusing his scripted lines throughout the New Hampshire debate.
Interestingly, Hillary Clinton has added some Parrot energy into her style this go-around, even if that comes through when she admits she's not a natural politician. She was much more Owl-like in her battle against Obama. Note that without the additional Parrot energy, Clinton and Rubio both have been called "boring" and "robotic."
As for this year's Dove candidates, John Kasich's instructions on how to pronounce his last name, "It's Kasich. It rhymes with basic," say it all. His reserved approach comes across as bland and lacks the strength and conviction conveyed by Trump and Cruz. Jeb Bush and Ben Carson also seemed quiet and ineffective compared to their bombastic competitors. This ultimately sank their presidential dreams. They couldn't balance their soft-spoken style with Eagle or Parrot energy.
There are no Parrots in this election, though as stated previously, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have displaying Parrot energy to their styles.
In November, personality will either be the driving force or the Achilles heel of the candidates. The three most successful contenders — Trump, Clinton, and Sanders — have each balanced their dominant personality style with a compementary one. The candidate who plays on these strengths without overusing them is likely to emerge victorious.